It seems like common sense: if you’re hit repeatedly in the head at high velocity, you’re likely to sustain some brain trauma, and that might cause health problems down the line. Yet the National Football League doesn’t agree.
Despite a growing mound of evidence suggesting that professional football comes with some significant health risks, the NFL insists that there’s nothing wrong with players’ brains…even though many of them are showing clear symptoms of cognitive dysfunction, up to and including death.
Brains are rather cool organs, and they’re critically important. The skull is brilliantly designed to protect the brain, but it can only do so much — when people sustain blows to the head, it slams the brain against the side of the skull, causing coup and contrecoup injuries (contrecoup injuries are the result of the brain bouncing off the other side of the skull). Even just once, this can cause significant health repercussions. A serious injury can cause instant brain damage of varying intensity.
For football players, who go out on the field every day and take blow after blow to the head for years, the result can be a condition called cumulative traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Effectively, each little brain injury adds up over time, eventually leading to serious cognitive deficits in the patient, many of which don’t show up until the athlete has already retired (often due to other sports injuries such as blown knees and shoulders). The patient’s behavior may change radically, his life might fall apart, and when he passes away suddenly, he may or may not be autopsied.
Autopsy studies on former NFL players, including those who have donated their brains to science, show clear signs of CTE. But the NFL doesn’t track players after retirement, and it certainly doesn’t keep up with their medical progress. Consequently, it’s up to outside researchers to develop and explore theories about whether professional footballers risk their long-term cognitive health on the gridiron every Sunday, and the NFL has proved curiously resistant to this research, claiming that athletes return to play without problems after head injuries and that such injuries cause no long-term problems.
The NFL’s resistance may be a result of wanting to avoid adding safety precautions to the sport; fans have a very firmly conceived notion of what football should look like and how it should be played. Moves to make it safer, like limiting legal tackles, changing helmet design and thoroughly assessing athletes after head injuries and before their return to play, could incite backlash from fans. The league may also want to avoid responsibility for the life-long disabilities experienced by athletes.
A parallel can be seen with the Veterans Administration’s handling of CTE and brain injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan — in fact, it’s research on these very injuries that has allowed such detailed studies of civilians from the NFL. Soldiers returning to the United States who appear to be in good health and later experience severe difficulties with integration into society may be evidencing signs of CTE along with issues like PTSD, but the VA, like the NFL, has attempted to evade responsibility for the problem. In the VA’s case, it doesn’t want these disabilities becoming service connected, as then it would owe benefits to people injured in the line of duty.
In both cases, research is cracking open, so to speak, a brave new world of brain injuries, and it’s illuminating the previously poorly understood danger of repeated blows to the head. Even if those blows are mild and the athlete is wearing a protective helmet, and even if they’re part of the job, they’re not healthy, so when is the NFL going to tackle the brain injury issue?
Last year, athletes sued the NFL over brain injuries, eventually winning a large group settlement. It may have proved a key turning point, as the issue was forced into the news with the settlement, and athletes grew more aware of the risk of brain injuries and the NFL’s resistance.
Public pressure may force the issue as well, but it’s highlighting a serious issue for many fans: can they continue to enjoy the sport they love, knowing that it’s killing the people who play it?
Photo credit: US CPSC.