Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy was first discovered in 2002 by Bennet Omalu when conducting an autopsy on Mike Webster’s brain. Webster had played in the NFL for 17 years and died of a heart attack at only 50 years old.
According to Concussion Foundation, CTE is a degenerative brain disease found in people who have experienced repeated brain trauma, such as athletes and military personnel. Repeated trauma to the brain causes protein in the brain to clump, spread and kill brain cells. While CTE has been found in individuals as young as 17, symptoms might not begin to show until they are in their late 20s, 30s or even later. People who have CTE exhibit a wide range of symptoms, from mood changes to cognitive issues. Changes in behavior can occur, from depression to paranoia to anger. As CTE progresses, memory loss, poor judgement and dementia can occur.
One of the difficult problems with CTE is that up until a few weeks ago it was only diagnosable during an autopsy, so those who worry their concussions may have built up to cause CTE will never be able to know the results.
As awareness of the issue grows, this will continue to be a PR crisis for the football industry.
A study published in July of 2017 by the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed over 200 brains of football players who have passed away across all levels (high school, collegiate and professional) and found that 87 percent of them had CTE. Of the brains from former NFL players, 110 out of 111 had CTE. Since this study is conducted on brains donated to this research project, there is a higher chance the individuals or their family suspected they might have had CTE. Those are some daunting statistics. This study was covered by numerous national news sources including CNN, The New York Times, NPR and Forbes.
The NFL issued a statement saying it had made nearly 50 rule changes since 2002 to protect players. This included education initiatives, better practice methods and an increased number of medical professionals on the sidelines of each game.
As people become more aware of CTE, consumers may still watch games and buy fan merchandise, but fewer parents will sign their sons up for football and instead push them towards less dangerous and damaging sports. Over the decades, this may have a trickle-down effect on the talent available to join the NFL. With a smaller amount of kids playing football, less will grow up to play in high school and eventually college. Since fewer kids will try playing football, the talent level within in the game may decrease compared to years past. If more kids grow up playing soccer or baseball instead, there would be a larger percentage of the population enjoying one of those as their favorite sport to watch and support.
Trends are already showing an increase in parents’ concerns about signing their kids up for football. A Chicago Tribune article describes the decline of a local youth football league that has gone from 12 teams to four in the past decade. Despite youth football making changes to require better equipment and more safety measures, the positives are often forgotten due to parents worrying more about head injuries than in the past.
Trying to convince parents that their kids will be safe is a hard PR battle to face, especially when Omalu was quoted saying that allowing children under 18 to play football is the equivalent of child abuse.
Some players are even making the decision to quit for themselves. The Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman and a current MIT graduate student John Urschel announced he would be leaving the NFL after the Journal of American Medical Association study was published indicating 99 percent of the NFL players tested had CTE.
Since aggression is a symptom of CTE, a lot of other PR crises arise out of this problem. When a football player acts violently, news organizations and social media began speculating if he had CTE. Instead of being a moment of bad publicity, CTE raises questions about how the situation should be handled compared to in the past. If a player is allowed to keep playing, does that mean the football industry doesn’t care about his disease or is encouraging behavior that could make it worse? If later it is discovered he had CTE, how will that look on the team or the league? This could put many public relations workers is an ethically grey area because they don’t know the aggressive act isn’t due to CTE.
One example of this is New England Patriot’s Aaron Hernandez. In 2013 he was found guilty of murdering Boston Bandits linebacker Odin Lloyd and killed himself earlier this year while in jail. Boston University’s CTE Center took a look at Hernandez’s brain and found he had Stage 3 (out of 4) CTE, which is the most degeneration they have seen in anyone’s brain under 46 years old. As the results were presented at a medical conference in Boston on November 9, attendees, including physicians, were said to have gasped at the images of his brain.
I spoke with Chuck Carlson, Albion College’s director of media relations and former sports journalist who covered the NFL for 15 years. He said he does not see football being around 30 years from now.
“I wouldn’t let my kids play; I didn’t let my kids play, because I’ve seen a lot of players who can’t even remember what they did yesterday, much less what they did 15 years ago on the football field,” said Carlson. “You can fix knees and shoulders and those kinds of things – you can’t do much with the brain though.”
While the NFL has made changes and tried to increase awareness, I wonder if this will be enough to keep the American love of football alive or if we are witnessing the beginning of the end of its popularity.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.