Much has changed across the landscape of football in the last 20 years. Take a look at the roster for each of the NFL’s 32 teams and you’ll be unable to find a single player drafted before 1995. More than 60% of the leagues teams have moved into new stadiums in that same time frame. Team practice and training facilities, weight rooms, offices, and planes have all gone digital, and even the players’ equipment is drastically more high tech than back in the 90’s. It’s seems that when a college or pro football teams notices something can be improved, whether it be their depth chart, playbook, jumbotron, or uniform color scheme, the upgrade happens quickly no matter the cost. So I ask, when nearly everything in football has been changing rapidly for decades, why are we just beginning to change the way we look at concussions?
In April of 1999, Mike Webster, a then 47 year old who played for 16 seasons in the NFL, claimed in his disability application to the NFL that his football career had caused him dementia. Two and a half years later, the NFL’s Retirement Board ruled that Webster’s football career had in fact caused him permanent brain damage, with Webster’s lawyer arguing that the ruling means the NFL should’ve known there was a clear link between football and brain damage. Just two months later the chairman of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee, Dr. Elliot Pellman, claimed that studies by his committee had shown that brain injuries in the NFL are uncommon and minor. In 2003, the same Dr. Pellman (who also served as the team doctor for the New York Jets) sent a Jets player back into a game minutes after being knocked out cold and even authorized his committee’s publishing of a paper in Neurosurgery where they claimed that NFL players are actually LESS susceptible to brain injury. This pattern of negligence would continue for years (and some would say still continues); it wasn’t until Allegheny (Pa) County medical examiner Dr. Bennet Omalu examined former player Mike Webster’s brain and found a connection between head injuries sustained in football and the development chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that a potential problem was discovered.
In the years since Dr. Omalu’s discovery of CTE in Mike Webster’s brain, concussions have taken center stage amongst a laundry list of other problems in the NFL. In more than five cases of former NFL players who committed suicide since 2010, CTE was discovered in the brain of ALL of them. According to a September 2015 article published in the Atlantic [ http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/09/researchers-find-brain-damage-in-96-percent-of-former-nfl-players/406462/ ], researchers at Boston University studied the brains of 165 former football players, with experience ranging from high school, college, and the professional level. Of the studied players, an astounding 79% of them were found to traces of CTE in their brain, with 96% of the 91 former NFL players who were tested testing positive for evidence of CTE.
Despite the small test group from this study, I found it absolutely shocking to read that nearly all of the former NFL players tested had developed signs of CTE. Perhaps even more horrifying is the fact that many of these players, who had only played football up to the high school level, had evidence of CTE in their brain. 20 years ago, the NFL had no idea it had a concussion problem. 10 years later, the league was still trying to deny the same theory. Today, it’s clear that there is a significant link between playing football and developing permanent brain damage, an issue that’s no longer affecting strictly pro players. Yes, the NFL does have a concussion problem, but so does the entire sport of football, a sport that over 1,088,000 high school boys play each fall.