Player safety concerns have shaken the National Football League in recent years as a growing body of evidence has linked head injuries suffered on the field with major long-term health issues. Even with new rules aimed at reducing the risk of serious head trauma, injuries are still commonplace: It’s only a few weeks into the NFL’s season, and there have already been at least 14 concussions. And to make matters worse, new research suggests that the effects of these head injuries may be even more severe than we thought.
In research conducted by the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University, 87 of 91 former NFL players who donated their brains to science after death tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that is caused by repeated blows to the head over a period of time, leading to progressive damage to nerve cells in the brain. The condition impairs neurological functioning, causing difficulties with thinking and emotions and leading to problems such as memory loss, depression, anxiety and dementia.
Working with the Concussion Legacy Foundation, the researchers studied players on the high school, college, semipro, and professional levels to test for signs of CTE, which is characterized by atrophy (wasting away) of the brain, damaged neurons (nerve cells), and abnormal buildup of certain proteins in the brain. Overall, 131 of the 165 brains analyzed showed signs of the CTE, including some that came from donors as young as 17 years-old. The disease was found in 79% of those tested who played football at any level going back to high school. For former NFL players tested, that number rose to 96%, according to PBS’ Frontline.
“People think that we’re blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that we’re sensationalizing it,” Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neurophysiology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the lab where the tests were conducted, told Frontline. “My response is that where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players.”
Since researchers can only definitively identify CTE posthumously, many of the players who donate their brains for testing may have had concerns about their brain health. Though that could skew the data, it remains “remarkably consistent,” with past findings suggesting a link between the sport and brain disease, Dr. McKee told Frontline.
As studies on CTE continue, experts are observing that a player’s position often is a factor that will determine whether he will develop the disease. The researchers found 40 percent of the players who had the disease were offensive or defensive linemen. Though linemen aren’t typically subjected to the big concussion-causing hits sustained by other players on the field, it’s the consistent minor collisions that could pose a greater risk to players, according to the research.
“CTE is only seen in the setting of repeated head trauma,” researcher Dr. Dan Perl, director of the Center for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine Brain Tissue Repository, said in a press statement. “At the end of the day, this [disease] is produced by head trauma. I’m sorry, that’s what all the research says.”
In the NFL’s 2015 Health and Safety Report, the league reported that concussions in regular season games have gone down by 35 percent since 2012, perhaps partially thanks to the league’s 2013 ban on players tackling with a blow from the crown of the head. In an attempt to further reduce concussions some teams are considering adopting a tackling style similar to that of rugby, where players tackle each other lower, grabbing the other’s legs, and hitting with their shoulders. Other initiatives mentioned in the Health and Safety Report include helmet testing, clinical trials for new types of imaging to better identify concussions, and the “medical timeout,” which is new for the 2015 season.
The NFL is clearly trying to show a dedication to player safety in the aftermath of the $1 billion settlement it made in April with more than 5,000 retired players who claimed the league hid the risks of concussions — a claim that is supported by extensive evidence. (It’s worth noting here that several players have since objected to the settlement, saying it offers no recourse for players who have yet to be diagnosed with CTE.) But because head injuries have been endemic to the sport for so long, as these new numbers show, the league might need to make deeper changes if it wants to signal a genuine commitment to safety.