Tuesday, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study by Dr. Ann McKee that revealed a staggering 110/111 brains of former NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative disease that occurs when a person receives repeated blows to the head. It leads to a long list of symptoms that can make life debilitating.
The country’s most popular sport has been under fire for years regarding player safety. While it is fair to point out that there may be a sampling bias, the results of this study are nonetheless damning for the NFL. It raises the question once again: Will reports like this deter future generations from playing football?
To fully comprehend the threat of a disease like CTE, it is important to understand its context in football. CTE is linked to excessive recurring force on the brain. Newton’s second law tells us that force equals mass multiplied by acceleration. In today’s NFL, players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever. There is no debating that. This has led to record high levels of force being exerted every time we yell and high five over a nice open field tackle. However, CTE concerns itself specifically with head contact. And in the NFL, there are plenty of opportunities for that.
Photo Credit: Butch Dill/AP
The best (or worst) example of this is during a kickoff. An NFL kickoff consists of 22 highly skilled athletes who are given plenty of room to pick up speed. Running as fast as they can, they are either aiming to tackle or prevent the ball carrier from being tackled. It is the only play in football in which all players on the field are converging to the ball. Being that they are coming in at such a high speed makes the potential for injuries even worse. According to the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, it is the most dangerous play on the football field.
While the average NFL play is not as dangerous as the kickoff, it is important to acknowledge that these devastating collisions are happening constantly all over the field. Whether it be linemen battling for ground or a safety looking to wrap up a wide receiver, there are violent crashes occurring all over the gridiron. It’s just the nature of the sport. With all 22 players beginning each play on one side of the ball, these high force impacts are bound to happen. The game almost literally calls for it.
Other sports that skeptics of CTE will point to are hockey and soccer. Though hockey is undoubtedly physical, a major difference is the fluidity that its players have on the ice. Skaters are better able to avoid or reduce the blow of hits and overall contact to the head is much less compared to football. On the other hand, soccer has become infamous for having the highest concussion rate amongst high school sports. While it is true that the average soccer player has a higher chance of concussion than a football player, it is important to note that CTE and concussions are not married to one another. Of course, concussions are bad for your brain. But, they are not the only factor in development of CTE. Where football separates itself from sports like soccer is on the average play when everything seems benign.
A study conducted by Stanford University’s ‘Cam Lab’ shows how seemingly innocent plays can gradually wear down the brain. Data from one game showed an offensive lineman getting hit 62 different times. This resulted in an average g-force of 25.8 per hit. That average is the equivalent of driving a car into a wall while going 30 miles per hour. Sixty-two times. Worth repeating that these are the results for one game. Picture that every day for a season.
The study shows that concussions are not the only enemy of the NFL. Scientists believe that this buildup of minor blows is just as responsible for CTE developing in the brain.
Ultimately, what we’re talking about is the prevalence of damaging head contact. It has led many players to evaluate what they want out of life beyond Sundays. Early retirement stories regarding NFL players don’t seem to be uncommon anymore. Just yesterday, Ravens offensive linemen John Urschel announced his retirement from football. Dr. McKee’s recent study was reported to have been a strong factor in Urschel’s decision.
I’m not saying that the NFL is going to evaporate overnight. There is still much to learn about CTE. But unless changes are made to combat head injuries, the league will continue to have a major issue on its hands. More players and fans are informed of the realistic dangers of football than ever before. This trend has been established and it doesn’t appear to be losing steam. Going forward, this leaves us with a hypothetical, yet relevant question regarding the future of the NFL:
Would you want your child to play football?
Header Photo Credit: Don Wright/Associated Press
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