With NFL training camps opening around the country this week, there is yet another sobering reminder of the dangers faced by players participating in the country’s most popular professional league. And at all levels of the sport, for that matter.
According to an updated study published Tuesday, researchers found that 110 out of 111 brains donated by deceased former players showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative neurological condition commonly associated with repetitive head trauma. The study, published in the medical journal JAMA, also found that CTE was present in the brains of 177 of 202 deceased former players, including professional, college and high school players.
“There’s no question that there’s a problem in football, that people who play football are at risk for this disease,” said Dr. Ann McKee, director of Boston University’s CTE Center and co-author of the new study. “And we urgently need to find answers for not just football players, but veterans and other individuals exposed to head trauma.”
McKee points out that the study can’t conclude that nearly everyone who plays football will get CTE, since the brains studied were only those that were donated and because relatives of the donors in most cases reported symptoms experienced by the players while they were alive. Among the prominent former NFL players who have been diagnosed with CTE after they died are Dave Duerson, Andre Waters, Frank Gifford, Kevin Turner, Jovan Belcher and Lou Creekmur.
The NFL said in a statement that “the medical and scientific communities will benefit from this publication [of the study] and the NFL will continue to work with a wide range of experts to improve the health of current and former NFL athletes. The league added that “there are still many unanswered questions relating to the cause, incidence and prevalence of long-term effects of head trauma such as CTE.”
Former Giants linebacker Harry Carson, who has been outspoken about the dangers of head trauma since being diagnosed in 1990 with post-concussion syndrome, was not surprised by the outcome of the study published Tuesday.
“It’s not really an eye-opener from the standpoint that I’m a realist, and I think that if you’ve played football and if you’ve gotten hit and knocked around, you probably have sustained some kind of trauma to the brain,” Carson told Newsday. “When you look at everybody who plays the positions, running backs, linebackers, linemen, it’s right across the board. We played during an era, the 70s, the 60s, where playing the game was different. It was very physical and guys got thrown around and got hit in the head and then they went on to live their lives and years down the road, they started to change.
“I think anyone who has played leaves the game with something, whether it’s fingers and knees and hips and shoulders and all of that stuff,” said Carson, a Hall of Fame linebacker who played for the Giants from 1976-88. “While I was playing, I knew something was going on, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. When I got my diagnosis in October of 1990, I had a name for what I was experiencing. I said to myself, if I’ve got something, then everybody else has the same thing. They just don’t know that they have it. That was the catalyst for me being so vocal in the 1990s. I knew if I had it, then there were other guys who had the same thing.”
Carson said the increased awareness of concussions and head trauma is beneficial.
“Keep in mind football players are just like people in the military,” he said. “They’re very prideful, and they don’t want to acknowledge weakness. For these guys to acknowledge it, to me it tells me that they’re really hurting, whether it’s the physical pain or problems that might be causing issues at home or at work. It’s good that it’s more out in the open. A lot of these [former players] are at the point where they’re starting to acknowledge that they’re having some issues, whether it’s forgetfulness, problems processing information, depression and all that stuff. Now, guys are more aware of it.”