Two Numbers: Degenerative Brain Disease Nearly Universal Among NFL Players

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Serge Bloch

There's no denying that football is a dangerous sport. Regardless of whether the game is played on a professional or amateur level, it is high risk, particularly for traumatic head injury and concussions. In many circumstances—if not most—frequent blows to the head have effects that may last a lifetime, a condition now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The degenerative brain disease causes a spectrum of neurological and psychiatric symptoms, including memory loss, depression, anxiety, aggression and dementia.

Recently, a group of researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University, collaborating with the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit organization, examined the brains of deceased football players and found that 87 of 91 former NFL players had CTE. The scientists conducted a total of 165 post-mortem exams of men who played on college, semi-pro and professional levels. In total, 131 showed signs of the disease.

Due to the small size of the study, the data have their limits. However, they do indicate that CTE is a risk for all players and is probably more prevalent than previously thought. "We don't know about the rates of these abnormalities in all the brains that aren't studied," says Dr. William Barr, director of neuropsychology at NYU Langone Concussion Center. "We don't know the breadth of the problem, and we still don't know the ultimate cause of this."

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The Denver Broncos play the Kansas City Chiefs. Researchers are studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that occurs in NFL players. Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In recent years, the NFL has started to respond to pressure to better protect players, spurred on by former athletes such as Tony Dorsett, Joe DeLamielleure and Ben Utecht, who have all spoken out about the long-term damage to their brains caused by concussions. The NFL has donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health and other organizations for concussion research. And in April, a federal district court approved the NFL's $1 billion settlement with more than 5,000 former football players who accused the league of concealing and minimizing the health risks of concussions. But some players involved appealed the ruling, claiming the settlement does not account for how much money players who have yet to be diagnosed with CTE would receive, or whether they would be taken care of at all.

Barr says there will likely be some high-level discussions in the coming years to re-evaluate the rules of the game. Some changes have already been made: A few years ago, the league moved up the kickoff line by 5 yards, in an effort to increase touchbacks and limit kick returns, which are particularly dangerous because the long distance between athletes on those plays gives them the space to really accelerate before they brutally collide at full speed. Players are also now penalized 15 yards if they duck their head down to initiate helmet-first contact in the open field. And the sideline concussion assessment and return-to-play progression has become a normalized part of each week's TV broadcasts.

Bigger changes could also be on the way. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has suggested that kickoffs might be eliminated, and he has also floated the idea of banning the three-point stance (in which players start with one hand on the ground) in favor of a more upright two-point stance, which would slow down players and give them a better view of opposing team members coming their way at the start of plays. Those shiny, polycarbonate shells currently wrapped around players' braincases may be on their way out too. The NFL, along with General Electric, Under Armour and the U.S. government, recently launched an open competition for innovative materials that would better absorb or dissipate energy. There's a good chance football helmets of the future will be soft and padded, which would certainly take away the formerly beloved crunch of big hits, but could potentially keep both the game and its players alive.

Two Numbers: Degenerative Brain Disease Nearly Universal Among NFL Players