We now know that head injuries cause a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). If you have a “history of repeated head injuries” you have a 30% chance of having CTE. Someone with CTE can develop symptoms like memory loss, trouble thinking clearly, mood swings, dizziness, trouble speaking, trouble with balance, dementia and suicide. Here is a very, very long list of NFL players affected by CTE. One study of 202 deceased football players (CTE can only be currently diagnosed posthumously via brain scans) found CTE in the brain scans of 99% of NFL players, 91% of college football players, and 21% of high school football players.
If head injuries are really this dangerous, why are we still playing recreational sports where head injuries are common?
We are nearly 60 years out from conclusive health research that directly links smoking to a handful of deadly diseases. Yet people still smoke. Tobacco companies didn’t close up shop when they realized their products kill people, they just stopped claiming their products had health benefits.
The National Football League is the wealthiest sports league in the world. It has the highest attendance of any sports league in the world. The rights to broadcast NFL games generate about $5 billion each year, just one of the league’s three major sources of revenue. Until recently, the NFL was a tax exempt non-profit. That’s a lot of money in the war chest to be able to reframe any emerging research that threatens their bottom line.
In fact, there is evidence that the NFL has consistently worked to hide research that head injury causes irreversible damage to the league’s employees until 2009 when they were forced to testify before congress and admit the link exists conclusively. Essentially, we know that a job in the NFL can significantly shorten someone’s life and will impair the quality of the years they do have but the NFL kept this information from players and the public for as long as possible. In 1994, the the NFL Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee was formed. Contrary to their name, the committee actually worked to obscure research that would help the NFL’s employees by doing things like publishing an article in Neurosurgery magazine that claims “NFL players have evolved to a state where their brains are less susceptible to injury” and working to discredit the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who first wrote about the link between CTE and the NFL and presented his findings directly to the league. As recently as 2006 the NFL’s MBTI committee was claiming that there is no link between the NFL and long term brain damage.
One way we know the NFL was lying, is that during the time they were telling the public there was no link between playing in the NFL and long term brain injury, they were settling with the families of former players who had CTE. Thousands of NFL players have since sued the NFL over the league’s lack of interest in creating a safe work environment. Under a court order, the league is currently providing medical settlements for more than 18,000 former players though that settlement specifies that it “should not be interpreted as a statement of legal liability on the part of the NFL.”
The NFL now regularly updates its “concussion protocol” to prevent players who experience a head injury from returning to a practice or game. They have also changed rules to make tackling “safer” by disallowing tackles that are especially likely to cause head injury.
Still, if you found out 99% of your employees are going to get a deadly work-related illness, “prevention” while still partaking in the activity that causes the injury is suspect. Focusing on prevention ignores that a large chunk of their employees will already have CTE by the time they get to the NFL (91% of college football players were found to have CTE). It also ignores the realities that head injuries are a matter of course for American football the way it is played right now. Concussions can build up and cause CTE, even if steps are taken to soften the hardest blows. The point is that repeated blows are harmful to someone’s health no matter what.
To be clear, we never thought getting hit in the head was a good thing. The term “punch drunk” refers to state of being made dumb by a head injury and has been around forever. Before it was called “chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)” it was called “fistfighter’s dementia”. Boxing, military service, domestic abuse and other contact sports are other big risk factors for developing CTE. The first symptoms of CTE can take 8-10 years to appear and there are currently no treatments.
The NFL has paid over $1 billion in medical related settlements to its employees. That seems high until you think about how much money has been made for the league by the players, 99% of whom will be affected by CTE.