Former football players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson both had long and highly decorated NFL careers. Both suffered head injuries during their playing days, including multiple concussions. Both eventually took their own lives and were posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disease that is most commonly caused by repeated or significant head injuries and is linked with dementia, memory loss and depression. Dozens of former athletes, including 34 who played in the NFL, have been diagnosed with CTE. Because of the nature of concussions and other common forms of brain trauma, CTE is usually diagnosed postmortem, making diagnosis, treatment and prevention near impossible.
Recently, however, researchers at UCLA scanned the brains of five former NFL players, "revealing images of the protein that causes football-related brain damage — the first time researchers have identified signs of the crippling disease in living players,” said Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada in a PBS article.
“The findings are preliminary — we only had five players — but if they hold up in future studies, this may be an opportunity to identify CTE before players have symptoms so we can develop preventative treatment,” said Dr. Gary W. Small, the study’s lead author and a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA to PBS in an interview.
Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic suggests that as diagnosis of CTE becomes more advanced, there will be a significant drop in the amount of athletes willing to participate in contact sports such as football.
"There's something more; presumably, if they really learn how to diagnose this, they will be able to say exactly how common it is for football players — and maybe athletes at large — to develop CTE. This is when you start thinking about football and an existential crisis. I don't know what the adults will do. But you tell a parent that their kid has a five percent chance of developing crippling brain damage through playing a sport, and you will see the end of Pop Warner and probably the end of high school football. Colleges would likely follow. (How common are college boxing teams these days?)"
According to recent CDC estimates, 1.6 - 3.8 million sports-related traumatic brain injuries occur each year, including those never reported to health care professionals. Being able to easily diagnose and monitor long-term effects could have a major impact on how professional sports leagues like the NFL handle player safety.
“This is the Holy Grail if it works. This is what we’ve been waiting for, but it looks like it’s probably preliminary to say they’ve got it,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, a senior adviser to the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, and co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. “But if they do have it, this is exactly what we need.”
The new findings may provide more fodder for 195-plus concussion lawsuits against the NFL being filed by former players. Former player Otis Taylor filed suit on Dec. 31, claiming that he “suffered seizures in 1969 while he played professional football.”
In 1990, Taylor was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and dementia. “He is currently bedridden, cannot verbally communicate, is unable to walk, and relies on a feeding tube for all his sustenance,” according to his lawsuit. Taylor alleges that the NFL is legally responsible for his injuries. Because Taylor played in the days before free agency and mega contracts, he and his family do not have the means to pay for his treatment out of pocket.
After the results of Seau's brain test were made public, the NFL released a statement on Jan. 10.
"The NFL, both directly and in partnership with the NIH, Centers for Disease Control and other leading organizations, is committed to supporting a wide range of independent medical and scientific research that will both address CTE and promote the long-term health and safety of athletes at all levels. The NFL clubs have already committed a $30 million research grant to the NIH, and we look forward to making decisions soon with the NFL Players Association on the investment of $100 million for medical research that is committed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement."