CTE: The NFL’s Downfall?

CTE is killing countless football players, but the NFL is just sitting there watching.

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By Ka Seng Soo

I love football. I’ve watched since I was five years old, and I am a die-hard Denver Broncos fan. Thus, I felt the sadness shared across the country from the loss of Vincent Jackson. A three-time Pro Bowl Wide Receiver, Jackson retired in 2018 after 12 years in the NFL to spend more time with his wife and three kids. That time was lost on February 15, 2021, when Jackson was found dead in a hotel room in Florida. He was 38 years old and had no serious diseases. At least, he was believed to have no diseases. While we won’t know the certain cause of death until an autopsy is completed, it is suspected that Jackson suffered from chronic alcoholism and the NFL’s biggest medical problem: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE is a progressive and fatal brain disease that stems from repeated brain trauma. When someone has CTE, a protein called tau clumps up, killing brain cells. According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, early symptoms of CTE are impulse control problems, depression, aggression, and paranoia. Later symptoms become even more serious. These include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and eventually progressive dementia. As studies and tests for CTE progress, more and more NFL players, as well as military veterans and boxers are being found to have had CTE, and more and more are dying from it.

One such player is Junior Seau. A Hall of Fame middle linebacker, Junior Seau shot himself in the chest in 2012. After his death, his brain was studied, and it was found that he had a serious case of CTE that led to depression and eventual suicide. Junior Seau was a fierce player who had several concussions according to his ex-wife, Gina DeBoer Seau. The true number will never be known due to the NFL’s toxic culture of hiding injuries to avoid being benched. As Junior Seau’s teammate, Gary Plummer, told the LA Times, “Your entire life, that is probably your most revered characteristic as a player––your toughness, your ability to handle pain, your ability to overcome adversity […] Junior [Seau] was obviously very good at it. He’d play through ridiculous pain that some people wouldn’t even get out of bed with to go to an office job. Sometimes you play a game with those.” Plummer has also said that if a linebacker doesn’t see stars at least five times a game, he isn’t doing his job.

Junior Seau’s diagnosis led to a widespread investigation across football. Over 2,000 players sued the NFL over concussions they received, and other deceased players were found to have also had CTE. A year later, Aaron Hernandez, a star tight end for the New England Patriots, was arrested for the murder of Odin Lloyd. While serving a life sentence, Hernandez hanged himself with a bedsheet. His brain was studied, and he was found to have stage three CTE, meaning he had the worst CTE ever found in someone under the age of 46. While CTE is not an excuse for Hernandez’s actions, it likely played a factor.

To this day, the most expansive and effective study on CTE and how it relates to football was conducted by Boston University in 2017. Led by Dr. Ann McKee, the study examined 202 brains from deceased football players. According to their results, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, 177 brains had signs of CTE. This number includes 110 of 111 tested NFL players, some of whom are part of the 101 professional players with severe CTE (Stage 3 or 4). Those with severe CTE were found to have an 85 percent chance of having dementia and a 95 percent chance of having cognitive symptoms. As Dr. McKee put it, “It is no longer debatable whether or not there is a problem in football—there is a problem.” She is right. It is clear CTE is a serious problem both for the diagnosed and those around them. Also clear is the fact that football isn’t going anywhere. It remains the biggest sport in the country and rakes in billions of dollars every year. Unless something changes, CTE will remain. This change needs to be sweeping and come from the top of the sport––the NFL and its players.

The NFL Players Association just negotiated the new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL. According to NFL Players Association’s website, their achievements related to CTE were setting aside $100 million to CTE research at Harvard University, creating a crisis hotline for players, coaches, and their families, and getting independent concussion experts to evaluate players when they exhibit symptoms. This progress is a great start. The research will help the players take next steps with the league. The hotline may save players grappling with suicide, and the independent experts can get rid of the toxic culture of letting your players play through injury if that gives your team their best chance to win. However, these efforts missed the most important thing. Players are still taking hits to the head! Repeated studies have shown that football in its current form is causing major neurological problems, and nothing is actually going to change. The players need to step back and realize that if they don’t take less hits to the head, they could be condemning themselves to CTE and thus the aforementioned symptoms. Whether it is through better helmets, playing less, or changing rules, the executives need to make it happen.

That point brings us to the league. League officials have notoriously skirted discussions about CTE, not even acknowledging its existence until 2016, when they were forced to face the topic in a session with Congress. Since then, the league has said practically nothing about CTE, with commissioner Roger Goodell’s last statement on the subject being from 2016. In fact, the league has done more to dismiss CTE. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in 2016, “It’s absurd [to] say there’s a relationship [between] CTE and playing football.” This dismissal is a colossal and systematic failure on the part of the NFL. Since Dr. McKee’s study, the NFL has done practically nothing, showing no regard for the player’s risk of getting CTE. This failure is shameful and needs to be remedied immediately.

The problem is that the NFL has no reason to change. Fans like me have continued to watch every Sunday, and in a year when many people said they were going to boycott the NFL, the league had more viewers than ever before. This change won’t come down to necessity for the league. It must come down to their morals, not just for NFL players, but for all players. Every year, over one million children play high school football and subsequently knock heads. Even these high school games can result in early cases of CTE. In that same Dr. McKee study, it was found that over 20 percent of former high school players had CTE. This number ballooned to 91 percent of former college players. The burden to protect these children and young adults does not stem from Pop Warner, high schools, or the NCAA. It comes from the NFL.

Fixing CTE will never happen. As with other brain diseases, it will always exist. The NFL’s job is to minimize the risk of players getting CTE without compromising the sport, which can be done in two ways: reducing the number of times the head is contacted and protecting the head from these hits. Reducing the number of times the head is contacted is difficult. One way to minimize this number is to encourage children to play flag football before playing real football as high schoolers and beyond. Additionally, increasing penalties and fines stemming from illegal hits to the head should be a necessity. Softening the blow of head shots both figuratively and literally is equally challenging. This solution rests in the technology of helmets. If the NFL is willing to put up the money, helmets can be made better, and safety will increase.

Jackson died from injuries he sustained while playing a game for our entertainment. To think that this situation will continue to happen is appalling, and as a football fan, it makes me feel guilty. I love football for the beauty of it. It is a wonderful mix of strategy, athleticism and teamwork. The NFL has a saying they have used countless times: It Takes All of Us. They are right. Now they have to uphold their part.