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Suggested Related Essay:
"The Cruelty of Boxing"

The horror of football and CTE

The violence of football kills the brain.

September 2017

About boxing it has long been known: it brings on brain damage. Now we know that professional (and probably college) football does the same. Rugby, hockey, UFC "fight sport" and even soccer are suspected of causing similar brain damage. Our football heroes are doomed to an early and tragic end in dementia.
Study this picture of posthumous sections of human brains. On the left is a normal brain, on the right is a brain with CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), which may be brought on by repeated concussions or blows to the head, and which is essentially the same pathology as Alzheimer's and other dementia.

In July of this year, Dr.Jesse Mez of Boston University School of Medicine and his team published, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a study of the brains of deceased professional football players. Of 111 former players in the National Football League (NFL), 110 were found to suffer various stages of CTE brain damage. That is essentially 100 percent! The lesson is clear: NFL players should expect to spend their final years – they rarely reach "old age" – with dementia, brought on by their participation in football.

The referenced study of donated brains of deceased football players looked at more than just NFL players, and this broader scope gives even more evidence for the progressively worse brain damage caused in the more professional, more powerful leagues. A total of 202 brains were examined in the study. Of these, only two were from players who had only participated in football prior to high school. Neither of these had signs of CTE. Fourteen players had played through high school football, and three of these (21%) had signs of CTE. 53 players had played through college, and 48 of these (93%) suffered CTE. Seven of eight who had played in the Canadian Football League had CTE. As noted above, 110 of 111 NFL players (99%) suffered CTE. So in general, the more football you play, and the harder you play it, the greater the danger of brain damage, reaching near certainty for NFL players.

The level of pathology for those who developed CTE was also related to the amount of football played. The players who played less football had milder pathology, with most of these exhibiting mood, behavioral, and cognitive symptoms before their death, and fewer showing signs of dementia. Of those who played at the professional level, most had severe pathology displaying all these symptoms including dementia. We should also note that these former football players died at a significantly younger age than expected, on average.

The National Football League has long been aware of the danger of concussion. This concern led to the introduction of leather helmets in the early 1900s, and and hard plastic helmets in the 1940s. These were padded to cushion blows to the head. But with the increasing size and power of players, even the best helmets could not adequately protect players against concussions or the cumulative effects of constant blows to the head. Indeed, we see players using the helmet as a ram in tackling, evidently in the misplaced belief that the helmet keeps them safe. Some have suggested that the hard helmet ironically causes more harm than good.

However, the league's concerns were not made public, and it was not until the players' union raised the issue of the effects of concussions a few years ago that the NFL found they could no longer keep their knowledge of this subject secret. Literally billions of dollars of profits for the teams and their derivative industries (TV, advertising, memorabilia, etc) depended on maintaining public confidence in the league, and this had led the league to keep from the public any information about permanent damage to the players from playing the game. The moral turpitude shown by the NFL's suppression of the facts of the overwhelming risk to their players can be compared to the denials by tobacco companies of the link between cigarettes and cancer. They had the evidence that their product was killing their customers, but corporate profits came before the welfare of those who supplied those profits. However, this lack of moral sense in our profit-driven economy, gruesome as it is, is not the topic of this note.

It is clear that these facts can no longer be suppressed. Playing football at even the high school level is harmful, and is associated with later brain damage, with mood, behavioral, and cognitive aberrations, and an elevated risk of dementia and early death. At the college and professional levels, the risk of eventual dementia is very high. That should be known by everyone who considers entering on a career in football (or other violent sports). They are destroying their brain.

In the last few years, a rash of CTE cases have been reported in various sports, including ice hockey, "professional wrestling" (mixed martial arts), rugby, soccer (association football), and of course boxing, where the disease was first definitively associated with physical brain trauma as long ago as the 1920s. In short, any sport or activity that subjects practitioners to blows to the head is likely to result in participants spending their older years with excessive mood and behavioral disorders, with loss of memory, and in most cases with dementia. The prospective participant in such sports must be made fully aware of this trade-off: a chance to earn big money in one's youth, against a family life plagued by domestic violence or other difficult behavior and a demented and shortened old age. Personally I don't see why anyone would buy into that.

Even worse than the NFL – which after all operates in the hallowed American tradition of the profit motive – is the morally bankrupt behavior of our educational institutions. Our universities are fully aware of the consequences of bringing in young, impressionable, and ill-informed young men to play football for them to sweeten their bottom line and their popular renown. Universities that should be in the business of improving students' minds are in fact in the business of destroying the brains of their "student athletes". They know, as well as the NFL does, that these young men are doomed to serious brain damage. But it's important to the universities to not let on. Just as with the NFL, the eventual consequences to the players are not their concern. What is important is evidently bringing fame and money to the university during the few years that the young men are theirs to command and to destroy. It is difficult to find words for the depravity of the university leadership in luring and guiding young men to their doom.

Let's ask, what have our national media done with this situation? How thoroughly have they reported and discussed the information that a career in football dooms the player to dementia, and dooms his family to living with violence or behavioral difficulties? You know the answer: this has not been stressed. The media makes billions on football; it's one of their prime money makers. So just like the NFL owners and the college administrators, the media are feeding off the same cash cow, apparently a sacred cow. They are ready to continue to sacrifice the lives of the players for their profits from the game.

So what should we, as concerned citizens, do about this problem? To me, the moral decision is clear: Boycott football at every level. Don't go to games, don't watch them. Don't allow your kids to participate. Object to your alma mater's football program. Write and ask them to justify it. Withhold donations. Raise the issue to legislators. Talk it up among your friends and on "social media". Raise a ruckus!

I wish I could suggest changes to the game of football that would lower the risk to the players and rescue the game, but I can't. The game depends so fundamentally on the powerful clash of bodies that it would need to be changed to something quite unrecognizable to make it safe. I'm afraid my hope must remain that the game will die from lack of interest, based on our knowledge of the unacceptable damage done to the players. By boycotting this game and letting it die out, we're guiding talented young athletes into safer sports, where their future will not end in dementia, the future that now awaits college and professional football players.

© H. Paul Lillebo

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