This just in: participating in violent sports such as football, and being repeatedly hit on the head, leads to brain injury. And those who engage in such activities professionally and for longer periods of time are more likely to suffer long-term and serious brain injuries than the general population. The Washington Post reported on a new study to be released at the April 15 meeting of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) that shows that “more than 40 percent of retired National Football League players … had signs of traumatic brain injury.”
Last year, a similar study found that repeated violent knocks on the head suffered by NFL players were linked to, and likely caused, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). A startling but probably not surprising 96% of former NFL players, upon autopsy, showed evidence of CTE, as did 76% of all football players, upon autopsy, regardless of whether they had played professionally. The new AAN study focused on living, recently-retired NFL players, who had suffered an average of 8.1 concussions.
MRI’s of these former players’ brains found significant damage to white matter in the brain as well as disruption to the nerve axons in the brain. Further, these players had problems with executive function, learning, memory, attention, concentration, and spatial and perceptual function. Anyone who’s had a concussion or has a child who’s had a concussion will recognize these signs, which are not terribly surprising and which do interfere with daily life off the gridiron as well as on it.
The study also found that the longer the players continued in the NFL, the higher the risk of brain injury and deficits. Again, this would seem to be a “no-brainer” type of conclusion. The more times one hits one’s head, hard, the greater the risk of brain injury and long-term effects from those hits.
It’s hard to see why anybody would attempt to refute or downplay such studies. However, refute them the NFL has, as depicted in the movie Concussion. Only recently, the Post reports, has an NFL representative “acknowledged the link between brain injury and football.” Much like the tobacco companies who denied the link between smoking and health problems, even in the face of seemingly incontrovertible proof, those who profit from denying the reality, such as Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, express doubt that a link exists between football and brain injuries and conditions such as CTE. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell declined to directly comment on the AAN study, instead stating, ‘‘I think the most important thing for us is to support the medical [experts] and scientists who determine what those connections are.”
But the most important thing for the NFL to do would be at the very least to take steps to minimize such injuries, the first step being to clearly and unequivocally acknowledge the link between football and head injuries. Perhaps Roger Goodell, a high school football star whose injuries prevented him from playing in college, and Jerry Jones, a captain of the 1964 University of Arkansas national championship team, are experiencing problems with memory, concentration, attention, and executive function which prevent them from seeing these studies as does the majority of the country.