It’s All in Your Head, Literally

by Emory Gun ‘22

CTE, short for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, is a very dangerous brain disease that can result in a multitude of lifestyle difficulties such as memory loss, impulsive behavior, depression, and more. Trends have shown that a large targeted group for CTE is football players. The more a person takes hits to the head, the worse their CTE tends to be. Currently, CTE can only be discovered after a person has died, since diagnosing CTE would mean the brain has to be physically looked at. However, scientists are making major strides in diagnosing CTE in the living, which potentially has significant ramifications for the sport of football. 

Naturally, one would think that various football organizations, specifically the National Football League or NFL, would take precautions to help the safety of their players. However, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took a different approach when the CTE first gained national scrutiny barely 10 years ago, and seemingly the wrong one. Although there was growing evidence that CTE is linked to getting hit in the head and even during routine football tackles and collisions, Goodell refused to admit that fact, even going so far as to allegedly not provide players with accurate information. “In 2013, the N.F.L. agreed to a $765 million settlement of a lawsuit in which retired players accused league officials of covering up the risks of concussions,” wrote Thomas Barrabi from The New York Times. The issue of CTE has become more talked about in the last decade than ever before. Films like “Concussion” starring Will Smith and a Frontline documentary entitled “League of Denial” both discuss the dangers of head injuries such as concussions in football. 

Since then, the NFL has become somewhat more transparent with information and has put more standards, like their concussion protocol, in place to protect players from sustaining head injuries. The NFL’s concussion protocol requires players who have been hit in the head and demonstrate concussion symptoms to immediately undergo medical attention. Also, any player that receives medical attention during a game must also have a follow-up assessment. Although these protocols do not fully take away the risk of CTE, it makes it so players will not continue to play once they have sustained a concussion, which can ultimately reduce the severity of CTE or prevent it altogether. These protocols also make the risks more publicly known so that players can make informed decisions that are right for them.

Perhaps the most notorious example of a CTE case is former New England Patriot tight end, Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez had an outstanding college career at University of Florida, and then went on to have an impressive three seasons in the NFL with one superbowl appearance. However, this all turned upside down for Hernandez in 2013 when he was tried and convicted for murder. Shortly after, he was also accused of a double murder that had occurred in Boston previously. After four years in prison, in April of 2017, Hernandez was found dead in his cell. After his suicide, his brain was studied and the results were not all that surprising: Hernandez had stage 3 CTE. “Those with Stage III CTE also frequently develop ‘depression or mood swings, visuospatial difficulties, and aggression.’ Headaches, apathy, impulsivity, and “suicidality” symptoms have also been noted, although to a lesser extent. According to BU [Boston University], 75 percent of the people studied with Stage III CTE were considered ‘cognitively impaired’,” the Boston Globe reported.

More recently on April 8, former NFL defensive back Philip Adams killed a family of four, two parents and two children, and then himself. His family has asked that his brain be analyzed for CTE. In 2012, Adams endured two concussions in only three games, making him a likely candidate to have CTE.

CTE being diagnosed in a living person could be a game-changer for the sport of football at all levels. “Recent advances in blood tests … provide further reason for optimism that a definitive diagnosis for CTE during life could be close,” reported Adam Kilgore from The Washington Post. If players know that they already have CTE while they are still playing, they can decide if playing football is really worth the brain damage.