Super Bowl hoopla did not prevent a meeting this week in Tampa with the attendees urging the NFL to join them in researching the connection between football and progressive brain damage and declaring that a concussion crisis exists in football. Among those at the hotel meeting were former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, eight-year NFL special teams standout Isaiah Kacyvenski and 73-year-old Bernie Parrish, who played eight seasons for the Cleveland Browns and now spends much of his time battling the NFL Players Association, which he says refuses to adequately represent retired players. Joining them were several doctors from the Boston University School of Medicine and the widows of two former NFL players who suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma that leads to dementia and a other long-term cognitive problems.
But it’s not only professional athletes who are at risk: teenagers may be as well. Medical experts at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at BU said they recently discovered early evidence of CTE in a deceased 18-year-old high school football player who suffered multiple concussions (apparently is death is not related to head trauma). No scientist had previously documented the degenerative brain disease in a football player younger than 36.
Furthermore, in their examinations of the brains of six deceased former NFL players, all under the age of 50, each was found to be suffering from CTE. The latest football player reported to have been found to have suffered CTE is Tom McHale, who played nine seasons with Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, and Miami, and died last year of an accidental drug overdose at 45. The abnormalities in McHale’s brain were distinctly similar to those found in the damaged brains of the other NFL football players.
A confirmed feature of CTE is that many years generally pass after a football player leaves the sport before the disease begins affecting his personality and behavior. Researcher hypothesize that the CTE may contribute to drug addiction (which may then be a precipitating factor in causing the player’s death) by affecting areas of his brain that control certain behavioral impulses, but they have not yet been able to prove that. Johnson suffered multiple concussions while playing for the Patriots. He claimed he was forced to practice when not medically cleared to do so, and he figures he sustained 20 or more concussions before cognitive problems began to surface.
As reported by Ron Borges in The Boston Herald, after the issue first was raised, the NFL formed a committee of medical experts in 1994 to study the matter. None were neurosurgeons, neuropathologists or neuropsychologists. The chairman was a rheumatologist, Dr. Elliot Pellman, who later was proven to have inflated his credentials. Pellman’s committee wrote in 2005 that returning to play after a concussion did not involve significant risk of a second injury, which has been widely disputed. His committee also reported there was no evidence of chronic cumulative effects from multiple brain injuries in NFL players despite growing evidence to the contrary. Dr. Pellman eventually was forced to resign.
Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard defensive lineman and ex-WWE wrestler who started the Sports Legacy Institute to study the connection between concussions and contact sports compared the NFL committee looking into the issue to the tobacco industry’s creation of a similar group the 1950s which found no connection between smoking and lung cancer. “The tobacco industry formed a committee to sow doubt until it was disbanded by Congress,”
“It took 50 years for the public to learn that lung cancer was directly caused by smoking. We hope it doesn’t take another 50 years to tell coaches and parents that taking hits to the head will cause CTE. Dr. Ann McKee, a neurologist, director of BU’s brain bank and co-director of the study center who says she has conducted postmortem exams of thousands of brains, stated: “I have never seen this disease in the general population, only in these athletes. It’s a crisis, and anyone who doesn’t recognize the severity of the problem is in tremendous denial.”