Football’s CTE Crisis

In light of the Aaron Hernandez’s CTE reports, CTE is taking even more of a forefront in the NFL.Outquotes: Going head to head with 300-pound linebackers every week, five months out of the year unsurprisingly takes its toll on the brain.

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February 5, 2012. Super Bowl XLVI. Third quarter. Tom Brady, New England Patriots’ star quarterback, drops back to pass, scanning the field before firing a tight spiral to his 6’1”, 245-pound tight end Aaron Hernandez. He catches it at the seven yard line and muscles his way into the end zone to increase his team’s lead to 17-9. He dances in the end zone, raising his arms to the roaring crowd. Even though the Patriots ended up losing the game, Hernandez goes for eight catches and 67 yards and inks a five-year, $40 million extension with the Patriots that offseason.

Five years later, Aaron Hernandez was found hanging from his bedsheets in Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, MA. He was two years into a life sentence without parole for the first degree murder of Odin Lloyd. To the world, he is a cautionary tale—one of a young player who let fame get to his head and killed someone in cold blood over a trivial issue. Besides the murder of Lloyd, Hernandez was also accused, but acquitted, in the murders of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado. All of this paints a bleak picture of Hernandez, and while he was not a good person, there is more to this case than meets the eye.

Yes, Hernandez murdered in cold blood. Yes, he deserved life in prison for the atrocities he committed. However, it recently has come to light that Hernandez was suffering from Stage 3 Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). This is the most severe case ever seen in a person at such a young age.

Because of this, the Hernandez family is suing the Patriots and the league, citing that they knew the risks for Hernandez but still kept them from him. The case will no doubt remain in the legal system for the foreseeable future, but besides Hernandez, there have been and will be many others with a CTE diagnosis.

Posing a major threat to the National Football League (NFL), this CTE problem needs to be addressed and corralled before it brings the NFL down. A complete reform of the sport is neither needed nor wanted, but more studies about what specifically causes CTE, along with more player awareness programs and increased neurological checks, would go a long way to quench players’ fears and potentially save the sport.

CTE is a degenerative brain disorder that is characterized by a buildup of the Tau protein, which slowly kills brain cells. It takes thousands of hits and enough of them, concussive or otherwise, to cause CTE. This makes football players especially susceptible: going head to head with 300-pound linebackers every week, five months out of the year unsurprisingly takes its toll on the brain.

However, one of the main reasons this remains an issue is that it can only be diagnosed post-mortem. Symptoms such as memory loss, social impairment, and eventually dementia or depression can often be a symptom, but nothing definitive can be done prior to death.

For a while, the NFL avoided this issue. It wouldn’t bring it up or admit that there is a link between football and degenerative brain issues. Even after players such as Junior Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowler, committed suicide in 2012, or Lou Creekmur, eight-time Pro Bowler, had autopsies that proved he had CTE, the NFL didn’t budge, stating that it would wait on more concrete studies.

The league went as far as to dismiss findings that the Golden-Globe nominated movie “Concussion” (2015) portrayed. It reflects on the work of Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian pathologist who found that former NFL player Mike Webster’s brain was severely damaged. He went on to conduct studies on other NFL players and found similar results. When he attempted to present his findings to Commissioner Roger Goodell, the league refused to even listen to him. However, after numerous cases and a 2017 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association that found 110 of the 111 former players’ brains studied had CTE, the NFL was forced to change its tune.

To keep players’ families from suing the NFL, it reached a $1 billion plus concussion settlement in 2013 that pays out upwards of $5 million to each family for a variety of injuries post-football. A CTE-related death is worth $4 million under the current agreement.

However, even after this influx of data on CTE was introduced, the NFL did nothing to restructure the settlement and increase the payout. Financial compensation to players’ families can only come after years of which suffering players and their loved ones had to cope with the disease. Pain should be worth more than $4 million.

Another issue for the NFL is the growing number of current players that are retiring before the age of 35 to preserve their mental capacities to live longer and healthier lives. Chris Borland (age 24), A.J. Tarpley (Age 23), and D’Brickashaw Ferguson (age 32) all hung up the cleats before they were forced out, citing heightened awareness of the risks posed in the NFL as factors. If more well-known players continue to retire at young ages, the NFL may lose billions in revenue.

These new, high profile dropouts have pushed the NFL to change rules to limit high-impact collisions, most-notably being the move of touchbacks from the 20-yard line to 25. This makes teams less likely to return kickoffs and collide with each other after gaining 50 feet or more of momentum, thereby limiting some of the more brutal head-on hits in the sport. This rule change, among others, is a start for the NFL. While it is impossible to eradicate head injuries in such a high-contact sport, the league can take steps like this to limit the most direct hits.

The Hernandez case is the most sensational one yet. He was one of the most recent players to have been in the league, so his play is still fresh in people's minds. However, as more studies come out proving other players’ brain issues, and I’m positive they will, the fans will begin to turn on the NFL as their childhood stars slowly go out both mentally and physically.

To prevent this from happening, the NFL needs to get in front of the issue by openly discussing it and funding research to prevent such severe damage.

I’m not advocating for a complete overhaul of the NFL. Much like millions of other Americans, my Sundays are spent switching from game to game and checking my fantasy lineups. To change the basic rules of the sport would be a travesty. However, this CTE issue is not going away, and more steps need to be taken to limit its place in football. Studies that attempt to decipher which types of hits lead to a higher CTE risk and compare the general population’s risk of CTE to that of a football player’s will go a long way in minimizing this problem.