The Brain Injuries the NFL Doesn’t Want You to Know About

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Two years ago I reported on a study suggesting that football is too dangerous for kids, due to the number of concussions and other head injuries sustained by players who still have developing brains. Early injuries often lead to later-in-life complications that maybe just aren’t worth the risk.

Since then, more data have revealed that it’s not just dangerous for kids. A neuropathologist at Boston University examined the brains of 111 deceased NFL players and found that of those, 110 had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease that can lead to mood and behavioral issues, plus more serious problems including dementia. It can only be diagnosed after death by examining the brain.

The brains in the study ranged from 23 to 80 years old and included players from every position, including punters who you don’t expect to withstand as many head injuries as the average running back. But it turns out many of the brains were those of linemen, who hit their heads on every play (but not anywhere near to the level of a concussion). This adds support to the hypothesis that CTE can arise not from repeated concussions but from repeated small knocks to the head.

Dr. Ann McKee, the researcher who conducted the study, points out that there’s a serious selection bias at work, here. She couldn’t just examine the brain of every NFL player — the brains had to be donated after death by family members, and family members are more likely to want to contribute the brain of their dead loved one to a study like this if they suspect that the deceased had CTE and want to know for sure.

But still, 110 out of 111 is a huge number that indicates a problem exists, regardless of the what the actual incidence rate ends up being. And meanwhile, NFL team owners and other executives still deny that it’s even a problem.

In fact, immediately after this study came to light, the NFL pulled millions of dollars of funding from the National Institutes of Health. Originally, the organization pledged $30 million to support studies exactly like this one, that would help identify risks to players presumably in an attempt to mitigate them. How thoughtful and generous, right? Only it turns out, a Congressional investigation found that the NFL was actually using that money to try to warp results that would make it look like football isn’t actually so dangerous, pulling funding from potential critics.

That’s the problem with private industry funding important research — they pretty much always have a conflict of interest. Unfortunately, the way the US government is looking these days, we don’t have much of an alternative as funding gets pulled from actual science and starts going toward, well, less scientific endeavors like transparent walls and trips to Florida golf courses and such.

Regardless of their past attempts to hide the evidence, the NFL can look forward to things only getting worse from here on out. At some point, they will inevitably have to face the music. They’ll end up paying out serious money for the healthcare and general quality of life for players, and hopefully they’ll realize that changes to safety equipment and the rules of the game itself will be the far cheaper (and more humanitarian) option.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. It’s easy to understand: Helmets don’t prevent diffuse axonal injury (DAI), the most common brain injury for football players. How could it? DAI is damage to the brain itself from slamming against the interior skull.

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