The NFL begins its preseason at the end of the month. If you’re a football fan, you have been counting the days since that last amazing Super Bowl. February through August can be quite dreary with no football to watch, only endless speculation about next year’s outcomes.
You know football is a rough sport. Hard hits are part of the game. We cheer when opposing teammates get knocked to the ground, or the quarterback is sacked for a loss of yards. We want our teams and players to dominate the others. But do we want them to actually get hurt, to suffer a permanent injury?
Unfortunately, it seems participation in football does just that. Due to the nature and rules of the game, players can realistically expect long-term and permanent injuries from repeated hits, especially to the head. Helmets only protect the brain from so much force.
The NFL, with so much money to lose if the sport changes or ends altogether, isn’t exactly forthcoming about the potential for players to suffer permanent brain damage. Despite scientific evidence, the NFL is trying to keep brain damage out of the overall football conversation in hopes we will just pay our money and enjoy the games.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy
You’ve probably heard of CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This is a subject the NFL would prefer you didn’t discuss when you’re having a great time watching football. CTE is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated concussions or hits to the head. This illness can lead to long-term changes in mood and behavior, as well as dementia and deficits to overall brain function.
Unfortunately, there is no way to determine if someone has CTE until their brain can be examined after death. Recently, neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee conducted research on the brains of 202 deceased football players, 111 of them from the NFL. The brains were from players as young as 23 and as old as 89 and covered every position played, even punters. They were from high school, pro, semi-pro and college organizations. They were players you’ll never hear about and from those enshrined in the Football Hall of Fame.
Of the 111 NFL players McKee examined, 110 showed signs of CTE. Linemen, who hit their heads on every play, but not at the same force as a tackle, were the most prevalent CTE sufferers. This suggests repeated blows to the head — even those that don’t cause concussions — can lead to the disease.
The brains were obtained from families who donated them for research. Logic would suggest that they knew something was wrong with their loved ones, and that they wanted answers. Still, 110 CTE-ravaged brains suggest there’s a bigger problem than just the intensity of the sport.
The NFL Responds — Sort Of
Unfortunately, once this information became public, the NFL pulled funding from the National Institutes of Health. Previously, they had dedicated $30 million to support brain studies like McKee’s in order to identify potential risks and how to address them.
Further, a congressional investigation found that the NFL was actually investing money to manipulate the results in their favor. The NFL tried to have an expert in neurodegenerative disease, Dr. Robert Stern, taken off the study because he had been critical of the NFL. When the NIH refused to do so, the NFL pulled its promised funding. This cost American taxpayers $18 million.
Looks like the NFL was willing to spend a lot of money to protect even more money until they realized the outcome wouldn’t be in their favor. They pulled funding, we got stuck with the bill — and football players suffered the consequences.
Denials Buy Time, Save Money
The NFL had denied the connection between football and CTE for many years and didn’t want the research to contradict their assertions. In 2015, they had settled a class-action lawsuit brought by former players who claimed to be suffering brain damage from playing in the NFL.
The NFL agreed to set up a fund which would pay up to $1 billion for the medical bills of some 20,000 claimants who were experiencing CTE-related symptoms and other brain damage. This settlement keeps those claimants from suing the NFL and, considering the long-term effects of CTE, is likely a bargain the NFL couldn’t pass up.
The NFL can only hide the evidence so long. Science has connected the sport to long-term, permanent brain injury. If they want the sport to survive, they’re going to have to change rules in order to protect players from injury. They’ll have to invest in better safety equipment and long-term health care. The NFL needs to listen to and work with scientists to protect those who play the game — not fight and hide from research to protect their profit margins.