We Should Be Talking About Traumatic Brain Injuries This Super Bowl Sunday

Plenty of people watch the Super Bowl for reasons that have nothing to do with sports. Breathtaking halftime performances, cute puppies and delicious game day snacks are just a few.

But instead of this dazzling entertainment, we should be focused on the number of traumatic brain injuries that result from the violent game of American football.

A 2017 study found that 110 out of 111 deceased NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disorder caused by repeated head injuries.

So why does football — and the Super Bowl, in particular — remain so popular when the link between the sport and traumatic brain injury has been well documented?

In the Journal of American Medical Association study, researchers looked at the brains of 202 deceased people who had played football at various levels, from high school to the NFL. They found CTE in 87 percent of the players, but that number was 99 percent among the NFL players.

A couple of footnotes here: CTE can only be officially diagnosed after death. And the results of this study may not represent all former football players, since the brains studied had been donated to a brain bank at Boston University by family members who wanted to know if their loved ones had CTE.

Nevertheless, the link between football and traumatic brain injury is indisputable.

“This study more than doubles the number of cases reported in the literature of CTE,” said study author Dr. Jesse Mez, an assistant professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine. “It suggests, with a lot of caveats, that this is probably not a rare disease – at least among those who are exposed to a lot of football.”

And yet, American football is the king of sports in the U.S. As a high school teacher, I have repeatedly seen how football teams dominate the reputation of a school and get the most attention, funds and acclaim from their communities. This does not happen to high school sports teams in other countries.

What Does CTE Look Like?

The Boston study found that football players with CTE developed mood, behavior and cognition problems in later years. Specifically, for players with severe CTE, 85 percent had dementia and 89 percent had mood or behavioral symptoms. Other issues included depression, anxiety and cognitive problems linked to memory and attention span.

Of course, all of this makes sense. How could a person sustain numerous hits to the head and not have those injuries affect brain function?

One famous example of the tragic effects is 27-year-old Aaron Hernandez, a former NFL star who was serving time in prison for murder when he committed suicide. An autopsy revealed that he had the most severe case of CTE ever found in such a young man.

The NFL acknowledged the football-CTE link in 2016 and made some changes to improve safety, including moving kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line, and touchdowns from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line. Other new rules included a penalty for offensive ball carriers or defensive players who use their head to hit another player’s head and a policy which improves the protocol for possible concussions.

Yet not everyone is convinced.

“I don’t think it’s been proven that the game of football causes CTE. We don’t really know that,” Larry Fedora, head football coach at the University of North Carolina, stated last year. “Are there chances for concussions? Of course. There are collisions. But the game is safer than it’s ever been.”

Fedora softened his position a couple of months later, but plenty of others – including former players – have agreed with his original statement.

Dr. Peter Cummings, a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist, was one of them. “I totally agree with him,” Cummings said. “Association is not causation. CTE has also been found in individuals not exposed to contact sports. It’s not a settled matter by any means.”

The NFL disagrees, as do researchers and most other sane people. Even some of today’s football players are making decisions based on the evidence: After suffering his sixth concussion, Seattle Seahawks linebacker Joshua Perry announced his retirement at age 24.

In my high school classroom, I have seen the results of several concussions. A cheerleader who was dropped and fell on her head kept repeating the same statement over and over whenever she was asked a question. A softball player who had been hit on the head had to read one short paragraph several times because she couldn’t remember what she had just read.

The terrible repeated head injuries and resulting CTE will continue as long as the U.S. keeps worshipping at the altar of football. We need to start talking about the deadly effects.

Photo Credit: Getty Images


Dr. Jan H
Dr. Jan Hillabout a month ago


Shirley S
Shirley S1 months ago

There was a movie made about this type of football trauma. It should be shown regularly to the players & the general public to keep the awareness alive!

Christine S
Christine S1 months ago

sadly, the toxic masculinity folks thinks there's something "manly" about knocking your brain around into mush....

Ann B
Ann B1 months ago

WHY should we be talking about it?????? they will do it anyway -the ALL MIGHTY BUCK!!! is the leader of the world...schools have plenty of money for sports but NONE for art theater and music..how many art student have bashed in heads and broken bones?????

Peggy B
Peggy B1 months ago


Sandra V
Sandra Vito1 months ago


Anne Moran
Anne M1 months ago

The only thing on their minds is winning,, they’re pumped !!

HEIKKI R1 months ago

thank you

Alea C
Alea C1 months ago

Can you imagine having let your son play football and then finding out you damaged his brain by doing so? I hate football, especially now that Kapernick can't play.

Loredana V
Loredana V1 months ago

Interesting article, many thanks for making a point. Brain injuries are underestimated, but dangerous.