99 Problems

American Medical Association survey shows 110 of 111 former NFL players suffered from degenerative brain disease

Ninety-nine percent.

Ninety-nine percent.

Ninety-nine percent.

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It’s a jarring figure.

This week, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a survey that showed 99 percent of the brains of former National Football League players suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head, which causes memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia.

Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the CTE Center at Boston University, which has the largest CTE brain bank in the world, conducted a study of the brains of 202 deceased football players, including 111 who played in the NFL. Of the former-NFL players studied, only one was CTE free. The sample set included brains from players ranging in age from 23 to 89 and from every position on the field.

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It should be noted that McKee did not use a random sample of former players brains. Many were donated by players or their families who noticed symptoms of CTE, which can be diagnosed only after death, and wanted further study.

“There’s a tremendous selection bias,” McKee said.

The full study found 87 percent of the 202 brains of former Canadian Football League, semi-professional, college, and high school players studied were found to have CTE. As expected, the more severe effects of the disease affected players who played at the highest levels.

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Researchers believe the accumulation of seemingly non-violent blows, rather than head-jarring concussions, probably causes CTE.

“It is no longer debatable whether or not there is a problem in football — there is a problem,” Dr. McKee said, according to the Times.

That was enough for John Urschel, an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, who retired from football Thursday as a result of the study. 

Urschel, 26, is considered one of the smartest players in the NFL. He graduated from Penn State in three years with a degree in mathematics and a sterling 4.0 grade point average. He played in 40 games over his three seasons in the league, but, in 2015, a head-to-head collision that knocked him out and impaired his cognitive ability afterward began to change his opinion on football. He has spent the past few off seasons taking course work toward a doctorate in math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Concerned for his future mental health, he left the gridiron after three seasons in the NFL. Instead, he’ll be in the classroom for courses only offered in the fall, and spending time with his fiancée as they prepare for the coming of their first child.

After a colleague left football due to mental health concerns in 2015, Urschel wrote an essay entitled “Why I Still Play Football.”

In the article, Urschel wrote, “objectively, I shouldn’t” play football, the Times said.

“I have a bright career ahead of me in mathematics. Beyond that, I have the means to make a good living and provide for my family, without playing football.”

Breaking away from the game may have come too late for Michael Oher. The offensive lineman, known for his Hollywood story of being a destitute teen raised by a foster family who rose to glory through football in the film “The Blind Side,” was released after failing a physical last week by the Carolina Panthers. Oher has been in the NFL concussion protocol the last 10 months since suffering a head injury last September. His football career may now be finished.

Traumatic brain injury has been a major concern for the NFL for the past decade. Many believe the league took a very hard line against the Saints’ supposed bounty scandal to show how serious it was about concussions and brain injury. It has also pushed safer tackling techniques at lower levels and has promoted flag football as an alternative to youth football.

American football is a great, entertaining game, but the violence associated with it is having horrific affects on those who purportedly love it most. It is a dangerous game that has paid its professional players relatively well. There is little financial inducement in semi-pro ball and none at the collegiate or high school levels. The question the NFL and future football players now face is how much of the risk is worth the reward?

 


 

By the numbers

Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the CTE Center at Boston University, which has the largest CTE brain bank in the world, conducted a study of the brains of 202 deceased football players, including 111 who played in the NFL. Only one of the former-NFL players’ was CTE free. The sample set included brains from players ranging in age from 23 to 89 and from every position on the field. The breakdown of NFL players by position is as follows:

 

Linemen                  44

Running backs        20

Defensive backs      17

Linebackers             13

Quarterbacks            7

Wide Receivers        5

Tight ends                2

Kickers                     1

Punters                     1

 

 

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