The political tension within the NFL is hiding a much larger problem for the league that, unlike debates about anthem protests, will not fade away. It has been and will continue to be the league’s ultimate problem: the aftermath of concussions and brain injuries.
According to Boston University, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a “progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma (often athletes), including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head that do not cause symptoms.”
CTE does not discriminate and it is an issue for all football players. No one wants CTE, but no one wants to change anything that could make football less fun. For years, the NFL denied any link between football and CTE.
It was not until December 2009 that the league finally acknowledged the dangers of football and concussions. It was then that NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Alan Schwarz from The New York Times that, “it’s quite obvious from the medical research that’s been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems.”
This was the first time the league admitted to the dangers and long-term effects concussions can have on the brain.
The league also donated $1 million to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, making them the “preferred brain bank of the NFL.” This gave Boston University the approval for future research on the brains of deceased NFL players.
Since the league conceded that football was in fact a dangerous sport, concussions and head trauma have dominated the discussion every off-season. The result has been a constant struggle over the desire to make the game safer while also keeping the sanctity of football intact. With each year, more players have retired at younger ages, citing concussions or CTE as the reason why.
Although the NFL endorsed the university’s research as a means to make the game safer, it has done more harm than good for the league.
This summer, a study from Boston University found that 110 of 111 brains of deceased NFL players had CTE. The study also analyzed high school and college players, finding CTE in 177 of the 202 total brains.
“It is no longer debatable whether or not there is a problem in football. There is a problem,” Dr. Ann McKee said, according to The New York Times.
Last week, the same researchers from Boston University found a new biomarker that could pave the way for diagnosing CTE in living patients. While the breakthrough is considered incredible for the neurology field, it could also signal the end of football as we currently know it.
If a living NFL player is diagnosed with early signs of CTE, there is no scenario in which continuing his career would be even remotely safe.
The idea to continue playing would practically be suicidal. The day Boston University published its study diagnosing CTE in 99 percent of the brains they analyzed, Patriots wide receiver Andrew Hawkins announced his retirement. Two days later, Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel followed him, citing the study.
Assuming BU will eventually develop a method to diagnose CTE in living people, the findings could spark a mass exodus out of the league like no sport league has ever seen. It would also be a blow to youth and high school football programs across the country, as not many parents would want to see their child play a sport that multiplies his or her chances of getting a degenerative brain disease.
The findings may have been motivated in part by the NFL’s sense of obligation toward finding the truth about CTE, although it is easy to see how this breakthrough could signal the end of football as we know it. The taking a knee protests will not be the end of the NFL, but CTE just might.
Andrew Lombardo is a journalism major from Middletown, Conn. He can be reached at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Lombardo_andrew.