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The NFL’s Concussion Problem
More than a dozen lawsuits filed on behalf of over 120 NFL football players will reach the courts this year. The suits claim the NFL deliberately concealed information on the neurological effects of repeated strikes to the head. This is an issue that’s been affecting the league since as far back as 1994, when the NFL formed the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee to investigate the dangers of concussion. It’s been largely an embarrassment for the NFL, but some good has come out of it.
Ann McKee, who heads the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy in Massachusetts has been studying the brains of deceased athletes since 2003, when she discovered an early case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of a deceased boxer who had been mistakenly diagnosed with dementia. Since then she’s examined the brains of 15 dead athletes, many of which Nathan Stiles; all but one showed signs of CTE. A further 400 players have pledged their brains to the Center upon their death. The earliest evidence of CTE McKee has found so far was in an 18-year-old college football player. An NFL-funded survey shows the incidence of memory-related diseases like CTE in players between 30 and 49 to be nineteen times above the national average.
The problem is not, as most think, the big hits players endure but the repeated little hits, which explains the high incidence of CTE in linesmen, who could be struck in the head 1,000 times in an average season. Nor is improved helmet technology likely to help, since the damage occurs inside the skull. The consensus seems to be that the players must simply be willing to take the risk; it’s impossible to play the sport without using your head.
The lawsuits will play out in the coming months, and the NFL will probably try to have them dismissed, but should a judge allow the cases to proceed, the significant evidence should cast a sympathetic light for the players involved.