Is Football Causing CTE?

In recent years, CTE research has been rapidly growing, and there has been a huge question over the safety of the sport of football. I have been playing contact football since the 2nd grade and I know from personal concussions that they are very dangerous, and precautions must be taken over head injuries as they can negatively effect the health of one in the future.

CTE stands for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.  This is a disease suffered from several blows to the head.  I’m sure several of you have heard about the tragic death of Hall of Fame center Mike Webster.  The autopsy of Mike Webster’s brain revealed that he had CTE which caused major dementia and depression in his post football days.  This autopsy opened the doors to worldwide curiosity and research, not only in the NFL, but in football at all levels.


With the NFL being such a substantial industry, many officials have gone into denial over this research, and refuse to believe the fact that their multi-billion dollar industry can be causing such a traumatic disease to their players.  One of the major contributors to this research, is Dr. Ben Omalu, a neuroscientist who knew very little about the game of football, but looked into the autopsies of ex-NFL players, Mike Webster being the first victim. In his observation, the null hypothesis would be that football does not have any effect on the brain and does not cause CTE.  On the other hand, his alternative hypothesis would be that football does indeed cause CTE. What he found in this astonishing autopsy was proteins present in his brain looking like red specs, that should not be present in a 50 year old man, and this caused the appearance of the All-Pro center to make him look more like 75 years of age instead of 50.  Webster’s personal life was affected, and he became more aggressive and had trouble speaking.  He would often forget things and he was not their for his family anymore.  Word of this research spread quickly, and rage in the National Football league grew.  Omalu continued his research and found this same issue in the autopsy of another nine ex-NFL players.  A few months later, this number would then grow to 30 ex-players who were found to have CTE.  He even believes that 90% of NFL players suffer from CTE, and he has yet to perform an autopsy that has come back negative.  The NFL responded with hatred, disapproval, and rebuttal.


There may be concrete evidence in this case, however these observations do not imply a causal affect due to the lack of participants affected by this disease.  There have been millions of players that have gone through the NFL and who have had long and healthy careers and there are certainly confounding variables to this research.  For example, how were these players health outside of football?  Were they frequent consumers of alcohol and other drugs?  Did they take steroids?  These are things to consider because these drugs could have a negative effect on the brain, causing the trauma. However, this research does indeed provide concern and curiosity not only for NFL players who are concerned for their health after football, but also for parents of players who are watching their children grow up smashing their heads against others at a young age. This link will show you the research conducted by the notorious neurologist, and the NFL’s response to this controversy.

A recent study was conducted with a sample of 513 retired NFL football players in search for the mechanism that football and repeated blows to the head could cause CTE and Mild Cognitive Impairment.  In this study, again the researchers had a null hypothesis that football and CTE had absolutely no association and the alternative hypothesis being that football does cause CTE.  The data provides evidence that 35.1% of this sample did indeed show signs of cognitive impairment. This data implements a correlation that retired NFL players have an increased risk of cognitive impairment in their later-life.  Although this study provides evidence of a correlation, it can not automatically be assumed to be true, and a better way to find a causal relationship would be the increase the number of participants in a large, randomized control trial.  Another important factor to consider is the level of confidence and p value of the study which would show how likely the results were to be due to chance.


So does football really cause CTE, therefore leading to an early death among retired players?  This question raised such an issue that they even made a movie about it starring Will Smith.  As you can see, there is astonishing research and evidence that shows a correlation in some retired NFL players, however it is not enough to ultimately say that it is causation, due to the small number of players affected.  However, no matter how small the number of players affected, it is still an extremely alarming issue and debate.  No parent wants to see their child suffer from brain trauma from what is supposed to be a fun, competitive sport. At the same time, no child wants to see their parent not be there for them and watch them suffer from cognitive impairment and memory loss. As a matter of fact, the NFL has already taken initiative by changing rules on head to head contact, in which doing this leads to ejection. But are these rules enough to keep players from suffering this horrendous disease?





1 thought on “Is Football Causing CTE?

  1. Brett Alan Merritt

    I’m very interested in this topic because I am a huge football fan. I think the NFL is claiming correlation does not equal causation so they don’t have to pay out billions of dollars. I personally believe football causes CTE, but I am happy with the way the league is trying to stop this. Do you think that the NFL has gotten soft? Many long time football fans feel this way.

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