January 13, 2013

Football Hits And Suicide: CTE’s Real Danger

If you like watching football, you surely like watching the bone crushing hits and the fumbles and incompletions that often ensue. Defenses win championships, and good defenses are physical-they hit hard. These hits have had devastating effects on some of the league’s best players.

Several players in the NFL have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, with grave consequences.

CTE was identified postmortem in several players, but most namely, in Line Backer, Junior Seau, who played from 1990 to 2009 and died 5/2/12. Seau tragically died from a suicide.

Much research has been done in the last few years on CTE and its connection to professional athletes. Many were NFL players, and a few were hockey players and boxers as well. The head trauma for these athletes is undeniable, and often accounts for much of the allure of the game from a fan’s point of view.

According to Lee Rannals, “CTE is associated with repeated brain trauma and has been found in professional athletes, military veterans, and some people who injure themselves with repetitive head banging.”

The 68 brains in the study came from men between 17 to 98-years-old, 64 of which were athletes and three who were veterans with no sports background.”

The team interviewed survivors of the brain donors to learn about behaviors exhibited as the disease progressed. In stage 1 of the illness, CTE victims suffered headaches, and had trouble concentrating and remaining attentive.

Those victims experiencing stage 2 showed signs of depression, explosive tempers and short-term memory problems. Victims in stage 3 had cognitive impairment and difficulty with planning, organization, handling multiple tasks and judgment. The researchers said that victims suffering the final stage suffered from full dementia.”

While Seau is one of the most recognized players that suffered from CTE, it’s because of his recent demise, but he’s not the only one, not by a long shot.

Defensive Back, Dave Duerson, played from 1983 to 1993 and died 2/17/11 of a CTE related suicide. Safety, Andre Waters, played from 1984 to 1995 and died 11/20/06 also of a CTE related suicide, so the relationship is irrefutable. Tackle, Lou Creekmur, played from 1950 to 1959 died 7/5/09 as well as Center, Mike Webster, who played from 1974 to 1990 and died 9/24/02. Webster and Creekmur did not die of suicides like the others though.

I can’t speak for boxing, because they can’t really change the rules to avoid head trauma; it wouldn’t be boxing if that were the case, after all. Also, the NHL doesn’t provide official injury reports like the NFL does, so the connections in hockey are vague.

Because of the NFL’s official injury reports, the relationships are concrete, and aren’t a secret to players or fans.

In an ABC interview, Junior Seau’s widowed wife, Gina Seau, said of football, “I think it’s a gamble… There’s a huge risk.” NFL players are made fully aware of the risks, but for an athlete of that caliber, it’s high risk as well as high reward.

Despite their knowledge of the potential risk for head trauma when playing a sport where 300lb, muscle bound, men fly at one another head first, the game they play is constantly changing in regards to head trauma and helmet to helmet collisions.

In 1996, the NFL instituted a rule change that prohibited hits initiated by the defender with his helmet or targeted at the head of an offensive player. The penalty was classified as personal foul misconduct and resulted in both a 15-yard penalty and subsequent fines from the NFL. In 2002, the NFL implemented an addendum to the helmet-to-helmet rule, making it illegal to hit a quarterback helmet to helmet after a turnover. In 2009, penalties for blockers were instituted. Any contact with the helmet or neck of an opponent made during a blind-side block, whether by helmet, forearm or shoulder, would result in a 15-yard personal foul penalty.”

On top of the ever-changing rules, big fines have recently been doled out to players breaking the no helmet-to-helmet rules. Some are as high as $75,000 per infraction, so the NFL is definitely doing their part; football is just a dangerous game.

“The NFL said the NIH’s finding underscores the need for additional research to accelerate a fuller understanding of the disease, which is also known as CTE. The league said its teams have already committed a $30 million research grant to the NIH, and that it is committed to supporting a wide range of independent medical and scientific research that will both address CTE and promote long-term health and safety of athletes at all levels.

“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,” the NFL said in a statement. “We have work to do, and we’re doing it.”

In order to avoid any confusion, Seau’s CTE diagnosis was postmortem, and is not being ruled as a cause of death. He died 3 years into his retirement, while other CTE victims died as much as 14 years into theirs.

Image Credit: David Lee / Shutterstock

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