Student Well-Being

NFL Official Acknowledges Link Between Football and Long-Term Brain Damage

By Bryan Toporek — March 16, 2016 5 min read
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For the first time ever, a senior National Football League official acknowledged this week a link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a long-term degenerative brain disease.

During a roundtable discussion on concussions Monday hosted by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, said, “The answer to that question is certainly yes” when asked if there is a link between football and CTE, according to ESPN’s Steve Fainaru. Prior to Miller’s statement, no top league official had ever acknowledged such a connection.

Miller did hedge somewhat after acknowledging the connection, saying, “There’s also a number of questions that come with that. ... I think the broader point... is what that necessarily means and where do we go from here with that information?” He cited the work of Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston University neuropathologist who has diagnosed CTE in the brains of 90 of the 94 NFL players she has examined posthumously. (There is currently no way to diagnose CTE in the living.)

On Tuesday, the NFL released the following statement, per Fainaru: “The comments made by Jeff Miller yesterday accurately reflect the view of the NFL.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who coaxed the acknowledgement out of Miller, brought up comments made by Dr. Mitch Berger, who leads the NFL subcommittee on long-term brain injury, during Super Bowl week. At that time, Berger said there was no definitive link between football and CTE.

“The NFL is peddling a false sense of security,” Schakowsky said, according to Fainaru. “Football is a high-risk sport because of the routine hits, not just diagnosable concussions. What the American public need now is honesty about the health risks and clearly more research.”

While Miller’s admission is a game-changer—and could have ramifications for the league’s ongoing negotiations to settle a massive concussion lawsuit—it also should come as little surprise to those following science over the past half-decade. McKee spoke on that point during the discussion, according to Fainaru.

“I unequivocally think there’s a link between playing football and CTE,” she said. “We’ve seen it in 90 out of 94 NFL players whose brains we’ve examined, we’ve found it in 45 out of 55 college players and six out of 26 high school players. No, I don’t think this represents how common this disease is in the living population, but the fact that over five years I’ve been able to accumulate this number of cases in football players, it cannot be rare. In fact, I think we are going to be surprised at how common it is.”

As McKee said, Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy found CTE in the brains of six men who played football in high school but stopped before college and did not play professional. Of the 85 brains examined outside of the control group in that 2012 study, 68 were found to have CTE, including 34 former professional football players, one semi-professional football player, and nine who stopped playing football after college. Seven of the 13 men who stopped playing football after high school had no signs of CTE, although three of those seven died before the age of 20.

A number of studies in recent years have likewise uncovered damning results about the risks of football leading to long-term brain injury. An April 2014 study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE found some football players’ brains may not fully recover from hits endured even after six months of no-contact rest during the offseason. This past December, researchers from the Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus published a study in the journal Acta Neuropathologica suggesting youth-athletes who participate in contact sports may be at increased risk of developing CTE later in life. Both the NFL and the National Collegiate Athletic Association even admitted in 2014 that football players are more likely to develop CTE than the general population. Is it any wonder, then, why Hall of Fame football players such as running back Barry Sanders believe parents need to be informed of the risks before allowing their children to participate in tackle football?

As it turns out, concerns over the safety of tackle football may be driving some parents to steer their children away from the game. According to the 2016 USA Football Participation Survey published Monday, flag football participation rose 8.7 percent among U.S. children ages 6 to 14 between 2014 (1.535 million) and 2015 (1.669 million). Tackle football participation rose 1.9 percent over that span, jumping from 2.128 million in 2014 to 2.169 million in 2015. Among those between the ages of 15 and 18, participation in tackle football rose 2.5 percent, while flag football participation soared by 10.5 percent.

Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, suggested a 2007 baby boom may be the cause of the spike in participation data, according to Marcus E. Howard of Reuters. Tom Cove, the chief executive officer of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, echoed that sentiment to Fainaru, although the findings about the rise in flag football stood out to him.

“Preliminary indicators suggest flag for kids may be rising on a regional basis,” he said. “For example, in the Pacific Northwest we’re hearing growth of youth flag leagues for young players, but not so much in South where traditional tackle remains strong.”

There’s still a ways to go before scientists and doctors have a firm grasp on the scope of the relationship between football and CTE. Until the disease is diagnosable in the living, we may have no way of knowing just how widespread it is. In the meantime, experts and advocates agree that schools must be proactive in informing parents and prospective student-athletes about the risks of playing football, especially given the growing evidence.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.