As the closing credits scrolled across the screen, all I could think to myself was, how bad, really, is this thing?
I had just finished watching the movie Concussion starring Will Smith. The movie focuses on Dr. Bennet Omalu who through autopsies and research on former NFL football players discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly referred to as CTE. CTE is a degenerative disease of the brain where protein deposits build up on the brain tissue due to concussive blows to the head. It is essentially scar tissue developing on the brain itself. The dangers of CTE were brought to light by Dr. Omalu when he began investigating former football players who died seemingly strange deaths while in good health at young ages. After further investigation, Dr. Omalu found that all of the players had exhibited strange behavior before their deaths such as memory loss, unusual behavior, poor judgement, and depression. Today these are all known to be prominent symptoms of CTE.
In a sport where players experience impacts that can deliver similar g-force trauma as that of a serious car accident, head injuries and their repercussions have risen to the top as a major concern. Constant conversation about the issue of concussions, attempts to create new and better technology and significant rule changes have all helped mitigate the damages and help bring greater safety to the sport that America loves, but significant damage has already been done. In fact, the NFL just recently reached a $765 Million settlement with former players in restitution for concession related law-suits. However, the damage does not stop there. Mothers are pulling their sons out of youth football in favor of less risky sports, players like 24 year old San Francisco 49ers Linebacker Chris Borland are retiring early to avoid health concerns later in life, and still every week thousands of youth, college, and professional players continue to be diagnosed with concussions due to the head trauma experienced playing the game of football.
As a former High School football player, I wanted to know just how at risk I was to experience any form CTE. While much is still not known about CTE, I have found that even High School football players are exposed to enough head trauma to develop CTE. One recent study found evidence of CTE in 18 year old Eric Perry, the youngest person every to be diagnosed with CTE. CTE essentially develops from repeated trauma to the head, like that football players can face on any given play. In fact, high school football players have been found even more likely to sustain significant head injuries than college football players. Research shows high schoolers suffer more concussions per game than college players. These statistics, in fact may be conservative as many concussion go unreported by youth players who do not want to be pulled out of a game. However, while studies have shown that while more often than not concussion symptoms disappear within two weeks, there are cases where symptoms persist weeks, months, or in rare cases even years. If a player is to go back out onto the playing field while the brain is still trying to heal, the player is much more prone to suffering a more serious concussion and therefore at a greater risk to develop CTE.
CTE is still something very much unknown to us. We are constantly learning and doing research on head injuries and the ramifications of them, but until we shine more light on this problem we cannot completely prevent head injuries from happening in the sport of football. However, ultimately, football is a sport ingrained into American culture and for better or worse will persist in the face of these risks.