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PBS Frontline documentary on brain damage presents a problem for Red Raiders' football.

... and the city has an obligation to respond.

by Joe Sullivan

TV documentary uncovers disturbing evidence about head concussions that result from playing football.

The October 8 PBS TV "Frontline" documentary “League of Denial” was an expose about how the National Football League avoided the conclusions of research that showed that playing football caused brain damage to NFL players.

More disturbing was Frontline’s discovery about the kind of brain damage that is caused by playing football. It’s called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, (CTE ) and this damage is classified as a disease.

Up to now this disease is undetectable in living persons, doesn’t show up until later in life, and is degenerative, that is, it gets worse over time.

In what’s described as the “autopsy that changed football’ Dr. Bennett Omalu, a pathologist, identified the first case of CTE in a former NFL player, Mike Webster, a legendary center who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The result of Dr. Omalu’s autopsy was considered to be first hand evidence that football could cause permanent brain damage. Since then researchers at Boston University have found the disease in autopsies of 50 additional players, one as young as 17.

Neuropathologist, Dr. Ann Mckee who collaborates with the BU researchers has performed a large number of these autopsies. According to a Frontline website she has identified four stages of the degenerative CTE disease.

Disease has four different stages.

1.No symptoms but CTE causes a protein to form around the brain’s blood vessels interrupting normal functioning and eventually killing nerve cells.

2.Rage, impulsivity, and depression as more nerve cells are affected.

3.Confusion and memory loss as the deposits expand from the front to the side of the brain. The condition begins to affect the part of the brain that affects emotion and memory.

4.Advanced dementia as the deposits overwhelm the brain, killing many nerve cells and shrinking the brain to roughly half its size. It becomes brittle and cognitive function is severely limited.

The cause of the damage according to the neurologists is the constant head banging involved in football. Each hit slams the brain against the interior skull. The slams don’t have to be severe enough to cause concussions although many of them do.

In a separate October 7, 2013 Sports Illustrated story about the NFL denial Dr. Mckee was reported to have said that she had never seen this disease in the general population, only in athletes.

The SI story went on to report about a meeting  arranged by the NFL in order for Dr. Mckee to present her work to the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee which was made up of experts formed to study concussions.

The meeting also included other experts, too, according to the SI story. John Mann, a Columbia University neuroscientist and psychiatrist who specialized in suicide research. Mann, too, presented his own research. It described data that showed how people who incurred mild head injuries as children or adolescents were at an increased risk for suicidal behavior.

When one of the NFL’s experts objected to say that it was impossible to link a disease like CTE to suicide, Dr. Mann replied that it was not just possible but that it was entirely plausible based on what he had seen from Dr. Magee.

Almost all player brain autopsies had CTE.

By the fall of 2012 Dr. Magee had examined 34 former deceased NFL players and 33 of them had CTE. According to the SI story when Dr. McKee was asked what percentage of players probably have the disease she said that she didn’t think everybody has it but she thought it would be a shockingly high percentage.

CTE is not about a laboratory discussions it’s a present experience. Junior Seau the retired legendary line backer for the Patriots and San Diego Chargers was a suicide. An autopsy of his brain showed that he had CTE.  The CBS morning news in late October carried the news that Brett Favre, another NFL player of legendary talent, said that he was having problems with memory
loss, issues that were personal to him involving things that he should remember but cannot. No one can tell if Favre’s memory loss is caused by CTE because there is no way yet to determine the disease in a person still living.

In view of what’s been discovered about CTE how will the city respond. Everybody knows that playing football carries a risk for injury. But a broken arm or broken leg is not the same as a degenerative brain disease.

Not all players end up with CTE.

Among the problems with CTE is determining the risk for anyone who plays football. Although linking CTE to football brain damage is a recent determination CTE must have existed long before it was discovered. This means the effects must have occurred with players over many generations yet everyone knows former football players who do not exhibit any of the dreadful consequences resulting from CTE.

By the same token, this doesn’t mean no football player is at risk for CTE. What Dr. McKee’s work shows that it is a risk with devastating consequences. It is a risk that every parent should be made aware before he or she lets one of their children play football.

The risk of incurring CTE from playing football is clearly an issue for the city. Because of the devastating nature of the disease dealing with it is an obligation of the city. This responsibility should not be dumped off  on the Athletic Department or to the School Department to which the Athletic Department reports.

Ultimate decision to accept risk lies with player's parents.

Whatever the conclusion of our city government about the consequences of CTE to our city sponsored football programs the ultimate decision of who participates in these programs lies with the parents of each player. The city must make sure that every parent who has a son who wants to play football knows the risk of not only injury but the specific risk and consequences of CTE.

Included in this explanation should be Dr. McKee’s four different stages of this degenerative disease. If a parent decides that this is a risk that’s acceptable then his son is eligible to play. It is the city’s obligation, never the less, to take every step possible to insure that a parent knows just what the risk will be.

For more information and stories about football and CTE Google "PBS frontline league of denial" and the October 7 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated story "League of Denial"

November 1,2013    




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