This was not a good week for the NFL.
The league has had a few of these over the last 15 years, an era that’s provided a steady drip of damning studies that make a compelling argument that pro football has a serious head injury problem and it’s not getting any better. In fact, the findings are only getting worse.
For the last 15 years, a mountain of research has shown that playing pro football most likely will lead to brain damage.
The alarm was sounded again this week when a Boston University study found 100 of 111 brains of former NFL players tested positive for the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which everybody knows by now as CTE. That’s more than 99%. As in almost all pro football players are subject to these kinds of injuries.
Two days later, John Urschel, a math genius considered the smartest man in the NFL, walked away from the game at 26 years old. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger later indicated in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the study will also factor into his eventual retirement plans.
“I know this new study that came out that 90 percent of players’ brains who were studied had CTE,” he said, coming up a bit short of the actual results. “There’s a lot of scary things, and think my wife would be OK if I hung it up, too.”
While Urschel’s sudden retirement was still fresh, video went viral of another former NFL player, Brian Price, completely out of it, arguing with authorities before throwing himself through a glass door. His wife says he’s suffering the aftershocks of football-related head injuries.
Keep in mind, this all unfolded less than a week after Michael Oher, whose life story was the basis of the film “The Blind Side,” was released by the Carolina Panthers because he was unable to pass a physical after months of dealing with post-concussion symptoms.
Before the end of the work week, it was reported that the NFL and the National Institutes of Health were ending their partnership studying brain injuries.
That relationship indirectly funded studies like this week’s blockbuster CTE report, which was labelled with words like “shocking,” “explosive,” and “stunning,” but the data should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the NFL’s brain injury saga over the last 20 years.
At this point, what could be more shocking than what we already know?
Here’s a look back at how we arrived at this point:
The NFL creates the Mid Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee, and appoints Dr. Elliott Pellman chair, despite having no experience with brain injuries. At this point, Paul Tagliabue dismissed concussions as a “pack journalism issue.”
The American Academy of Neurology suggests athletes should be removed from games immediately following head injuries. Three years later, the NFL questions those recommendations, citing a lack of evidence that being knocked out during a game is actually dangerous.
Mike Webster says he has dementia and the NFL Retirement Board finds he is “totally and permanently” disabled. Pellman says the MTBI committee has found brain injuries in football are rare.
Webster dies of a heart attack. Dr. Bennet Omalu discovers the former Steeler suffered from a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The discovery triggers a series of studies attempting to find a link between football and brain injuries that continues today.
University of North Carolina researcher Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz finds multiple concussions can retard brain function. The same month his study is published, ESPN reports that Pellman sent Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet back into a game after getting knocked unconscious.
Omalu discovers CTE in the brain of dead former Steeler Justin Strzelczyk. The same year, Pellman’s MTBI committee says concussion symptoms are “resolved in a short time” and disputes Guskiewicz’s findings that concussions can damage the brain. The MTBI committee argues NFL players are “ less susceptible” to concussions “than the general population.”
Guskiewicz and Dr. Julian Bailes publish a study linking dementia with concussions in pro football, while the NFL’s MTBI committee argues returning to play after a head injury does not open the player up to added risks. Six months later, former Steeler Terry Long drinks a bottle of antifreeze and kills himself. Omalu finds CTE in his brain, too.
Roger Goodell becomes NFL commissioner. The NFL disputes Omalu’s CTE findings, calling his work “completely wrong.” Less than a year later, Andre Waters kills himself and Omalu finds CTE in his brain.
Pellman steps down as chair of the MTBI committee but continues to work with the league for another nine years.
Guskiewicz and Bailes publish another study that finds pro football players with “three or more concussions are at a significantly greater risk” for suffering from depression than players with no concussion history.
Drs. Ann McKee and Chris Nowinski announce the formation of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, which would go on to produce a series of landmark CTE studies involving football players, including this week’s data. After meeting with the NFL for the first time, McKee says the league was dismissive of her research.
The same year, an NFL-funded study concludes there is a dementia risk among former players. According to the study, NFL players are 19 times more likely to have dementia and Alzheimer’s than people who do not play pro football.
The NFL sinks serious money into brain research, pledging more than $ 30 million to the National Institutes of Health for brain injury research and McKee’s CTE team in Boston. The league also ramps up a player education campaign to teach players about the dangers of concussions. Over time, the NFL changes almost 50 rules to better protect players from head injuries.
Dave Duerson shoots himself in the chest and leaves a suicide note asking for his brain to be sent to McKee in Boston. He is posthumously diagnosed with CTE. The same year, more than 4,500 former NFL players file a class-action lawsuit accusing the NFL of hiding the dangers of head injuries.
McKee finds CTE in 33 of 34 brains of former football players, but her research is again questioned because of the small sample size. The same year, the NFL launches the Heads Up Football initiative to teach youth players proper techniques to minimize head injuries. Ray Easterling and Junior Seau commit suicide a month apart. Both had CTE.
The NFL agrees to a $ 765 million class-action settlement with former players who felt the league covered up the effects of head injuries. Arizona rookie Ryan Swope is forced to retire at 22 years old because of concussions.
Judge Anita Brody rejects the NFL’s settlement offer. She doesn’t believe it’s enough. The total is later raised to $ 1 billion.
San Francisco linebacker Chris Borland retires, citing a fear of head injuries. In September, Boston University researchers find CTE in 131 of 165 (79%) of former football players’ brains. Of former NFL players tested, 87 of 91 (96%) tested positive. One month later, Adrian Robinson kills himself. He is posthumously diagnosed with CTE.
NFL executive Jeff Miller acknowledges a link between football and head injuries during a congressional committee hearing. It is believed to be the first time an NFL executive admits as much.
The NFL also pledges $ 100 million more to concussion research, while scientists report progress in identifying CTE in players while they are still alive. To date, it can only be found after death.
Finally, a congressional committee accuses the NFL of improperly influencing concussion research, which leads to this week’s report that the NFL and National Institutes of Health are ending their partnership over precisely that.
The first payouts were approved in the NFL class-action lawsuit and the most seriously injured former players may be awarded up to $ 5 million each.
And just days into the start of NFL training camps, the league had one of its worst weeks in a while on the head injury front.
But as time goes on, each study seems to present more compelling data. The numbers have only gotten more stark, the dangers of football more apparent.
This week, dead NFL players were testing positive for CTE at a rate of 99%, making a pretty convincing argument that virtually every player, at every level of the game, is at risk for an injury we still know very little about.
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