Head injuries and football: what is CTE?

Adam Galliano, Writer

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

This is a classic paradox demonstrating how different elements can interact. Although there is no definitive answer, we often find situations where this problem can relate in our everyday lives.

The game of football has been around since its invention in 1869. Since its origins, there have been many rule changes and alterations, but one constant there has always been injuries.

When highly skilled and physically astute individuals play a “contact” sport, where physically interacting with opposing players is standard fare, there will always be the opportunity for something to give. This usually ends up being an injury.

From day one, the physicality became more intense, and as athletes became more competitive, the greater risk for injuries occurred.

In its early days, little to no protection was worn, and the ending result became a slew of major injuries and even deaths. In 1904 alone, there were 18 football-related deaths and over 150 serious injuries. The president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, after learning of the extent of these issues, even implemented state-mandated rules to curb any excessive violence.

Throughout the years, other rules and safety regulations have been implemented to assist in making the game safer, but unfortunately major injuries still often occur.

While many of these medical issues consist of sprained and broken bones and damaged ligaments, one main concern has always been the damage that can happen to the brain.

While most know and understand these injuries as concussions, many time over studies have found them to be more well known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTEs.

CTE, according to a Boston University study, is described as “a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma.”

When CTE becomes apparent “a protein called Tau forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells” (Boston University, 2019).

This disorder was first described in 1928 when Dr. Harrison Martland was analyzing health issues with professional boxers. Coining the phrase “punch drunk syndrome,” Martland found that some boxers, after a lengthy career, were displaying symptoms of degenerative mental and physical capacity and concluded this might be due to excessive trauma to the head.

For over 75 years, researchers found similar findings, but it was not until 2005 when a pathologist named Bennet Omalu published the first conclusive evidence of CTE in an American football player.
Before former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster passing away in 2002 from a heart attack, the famed athlete had begun to display a series of erratic behaviors.

These issues prompted doctors to analyze his and eight other football players’ brain tissue to look at the long-term effects of football-related head injuries.

The results led to the formation of the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, which is a partnership between Boston University and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to study the long-term effects of CTE.

Led by Dr. Ann McKee, the “Brain Bank” has set the standard of how we understand CTE and has had over 600 brains donated. Of those 600, over 360 have been found to have CTE.

Some of the symptoms prevalent in individuals who might have CTE are memory loss, depression, anxiety, headaches and sleep disturbances that can result in death.

While CTE has been seen in athletes and individuals as young as 17, as a degenerative most often takes many years to fully manifest itself. While much has been done to alter the rules and safety equipment available to protect athletes, CTE and head injuries are as prevalent as ever.

According to an article by The New York Times in July of 2017, NFL players “suffered more concussions in 2017 than in each of the previous five years, with a reported 281 concussions, including head injuries, suffered in preseason games and practices. That constituted an increase of 15.6% over the five-year average.” Dr. McKee, after studying over 200 brains from deceased football players, concluded that of those 202 (111 of which had previously played in the NFL), 110 were found to have contracted CTE (NYTimes, 2019).

On October 15, 2019, the NFL released its most recent set of statistics analyzing injuries to players.
The injury data is compiled and analyzed by IQVIA (formerly Quintiles), an independent third-party company retained by the NFL. (NFL.com). The injury data below includes available statistics on a broad range of injuries, including numbers from 2012 to 2019 for the incidence of reported concussions in the preseason and regular season. These statistics do not include injuries attained in regular-season games, and the NFL season is currently entering week nine, halfway through the 16-game season.

While CTE is a very common outcome unfortunately for many athletes, especially football players, sometimes the risk outplays the reward. With all sporting activities that require physical exertion, the opportunity for injuries will always remain.

Reporter’s note:

Although there is no surefire method of ending CTE and injuries in sports, advancements in safety precautions and changes to rules are constantly implemented. As a long-time football fan myself, I have sympathy for those who have contracted this disease and hope better methods for curbing this issue can become prevalent.

One great method for curbing CTEs that I found to be effective for the past 20 years: sign on to be Tom Brady’s backup quarterback.

Since 2001 when Brady took the starting job away from Drew Bledsoe, he has missed a total of four games due to injury and suspension, and in that time, there have been 16 players who have taken the backup quarterback job behind Brady. Although this is a bit tongue in cheek, it seems with Brady’s longevity and proclivity for playing and not missing games, those who want to stay a bit safe have a better chance than most in that role. And really, there aren’t many jobs in sports better than that one.