At this point, it is widely known that concussion sustained in football can have devastating long-term consequences. Some of these consequences include the suicides of former players, driven to depression after repeated blows to the brain, as well as increased chances of getting Alzheimer's disease.
Studies on CTE show the damage can be quick, slow to develop, and deadly. Worst of all, it doesn't just apply to NFL players. College athletes and high school players have shown signs of brain trauma, as people begin to understand how valuable and precious the brain really is.
CTE does not appear all that often, but new studies show CTE is hardly the only reason to fear a brain injury.
The new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, does not diagnose any player with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the neurodegenerative disease most associated with football head trauma, or any other brain disease. Rather, it suggests that players could be at risk for further cognitive problems down the road. Subjects were hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, which measured their brain activity while they performed a cognitive task: rearranging a series of balls in as few steps as possible. The 13 retired NFL players involved in the study performed slightly worse on the cognitive test than 60 control, non-football playing subjects. And the players showed significantly higher levels of abnormal activity in the frontal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for executive functions like reasoning, planning, executing tasks. Adam Hampshire, senior lecturer in restorative neurosciences at the Imperial College (U.K.) Department of Medicine, and lead author of the study, says the retired NFL players showed “some of the most pronounced abnormalities in brain activity that I have ever seen.”
Their brains, says Hampshire, are doing too much work. The control group showed low activity levels in the frontal lobe while performing the task, while the football players used more mental energy to complete the test successfully. The football players also showed lower levels of connectivity between the frontal lobe and other regions of the brain. What’s more, the level of abnormal brain activity in the NFL players directly correlated with how often they reported leaving a game because of head injury. The more they got knocked out of the game, the more dysfunction in their brains. “This is really critical,” says Hampshire.
Many players shake off these concerns by looking at their paychecks. They say they understand the risks of playing the game, and do it to support their families for years to come, as well as for the glory. Or, in Brian Urlacher's simpler terms, “If you don’t want to play and get concussed, then don’t play.”
That's fine for players in the game now, and even for those coming up for the next few years. But more and more parents are shying their kids away from football due to those risks. Parents are now 57 percent less likely to allow their kids to play football after learning about concussions. There are 5 percent less kids playing football than six years ago, and as much as 33 percent less in Minnesota alone. And now that the worst-possible injuries are no longer the only injuries being studied, there could be a whole litany of side-effects that may be caused by hits to the head.
The Dish wonders if these types of revelations, particularly amongst children, will make Big Football like Big Tobacco in the near future. It certainly seems plausible, no matter how much money the NFL forks out to those in wheelchairs and hospitals after they leave the field.
At some point, the NFL is going to have to address the elephant in the room and deal with the actual problem of brain injuries, rather than simply the recovery. Otherwise, they won't have to worry about the recovery, because there won't be anyone left to help recover.