Football: A disturbing new study
“It seems crazy to imagine the end of football,” America’s most popular and profitable sport, said Jason Gay in The Wall Street Journal. But both the NFL and college football were rocked last week by a “disturbing” new medical study that starkly reveals the long-term neurological risks it poses to players. Researchers at Boston University found that 110 of 111 brains donated by deceased NFL players showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurological disease linked to dementia, memory loss, depression, anxiety, and violence. Among deceased players of all levels—from professional down to high school—177 out of 202 examined brains showed evidence of CTE, presumably as the result of repeated blows to the head. The study certainly got the players’ attention: Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel “abruptly retired” at age 26 to focus on his Ph.D. in mathematics; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he was considering retiring after this season, noting, “You can’t have a brain transplant.” Even devoted football fans “have to feel twinges of conflict now.”
Actually, the results of this study are being overhyped, said Daniel Engber in Slate.com. All the brains in this study were donated because there was “reason to suspect that researchers might find evidence of damage.” A more representative, random sample would likely find a much smaller percentage of players develop CTE. Indeed, a 2008 University of Michigan survey of 1,000 retired NFL players found that most did not have classic CTE symptoms, although there were elevated rates of memory problems and dementia. Clearly, there is a link between football and CTE—“but we haven’t yet defined its scope and implications.”
As a former college player myself, I am deeply torn, said David Haugh in the Chicago Tribune. Football “builds self-confidence and mental toughness,” and provides many impoverished young people with a free college education and a possible pathway to riches “they wouldn’t otherwise have.” But the risk of brain injury is no longer debatable and requires the NFL to adopt rule changes—“restrict contact above the shoulders,” for example—that will significantly transform the game. Fans, meanwhile, must accept that the big, entertaining hits they love can do terrible damage to players’ brains—and that the game has to evolve, and become less violent, if it is to survive.