NFL Players Are Suffering And Dying From Concussions. Is It Time For More Regulation?

November 16th 2014

Adam Rotstein

The spectacles of violence and organized aggression we refer to as the NFL have come to a head-- specifically to the heads of over 50 former NFL players, who have been diagnosed posthumously with a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, (CTE).

CTE is a “progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma.” Although many former NFL players are suspected to be living with CTE, the disease can only be confirmed with certainty by physically analyzing brain tissue after death. Brain tissue with CTE contains “an abnormal build-up of tau -- a protein that can choke off, or disable, neural pathways controlling things like memory, judgment and fear.” These changes in the brain can be observed months, years, or decades after the repeated head trauma from a professional career in football takes place.

A recent but not surprising addition to this haunting story involves the report on Jovan Belcher’s brain by neuro-pathologist Piotr Kozlowski. Jovan Belcher, the Kansas City Chiefs Linebacker, was found to have tangles of Tau proteins in his hippocampus, something extremely rare for a healthy brain of an individual of his age. Quick refresher: Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend and later himself in the team’s training facility back in 2012. He joins the more than 50 former NFL players including Junior Seau and Dave Duerson who have been posthumously diagnosed with the disease.

Some background: The relationship between football trauma and CTE was first noted in 2002 when Pittsburgh Steelers starting center Mike Webster’s brain was autopsied and found to have CTE. Though he passed away due to a heart attack in 2002, he had “never been the same” after his career ended. This case paved the way for correctly diagnosing and attributing CTE to future athletes.

A recent study from the nation’s largest brain bank focusing on traumatic brain injury has found evidence of degenerative brain disease in 76 of the 79 former NFL players it has examined. It should be noted that many of the players who volunteered their brains to the study noticed in themselves CTE symptoms (bouts of aggression, depression and cloudy thought) before agreeing to participate in the study. This new research comes at a time when NFL retirees and their families are deciding to opt in to a settlement in a class-action concussion case brought against the leagues by 4,500 former players.

According to Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post, concussions are like the Black Lung while the NFL is similar to the coal industry of 1969. The league is coerced into taking responsibility only with the threat of legal implications. We saw similar behavior about domestic abuse until the jarring video of Ray Rice was made public. Likewise, the NFL turned a blind eye to painkillers right up until there was a DEA investigation. Imminent lawsuits and financial threats are the only things that ignite the league to take action.

The fact of the matter is that the NFL has a responsibility to combat issues in which they are implicated. They still support youth football programs that perpetuate a culture of unhealthy athletic practices. Romney Jenkins, a former running back specialist in the NFL, has been struggling with serious cognitive issues in the 11 years since he retired from the NFL. He doesn’t sound hopeful either, "It just seems like there's an agenda and our well-being isn't a part of that," said Jenkins.

Sally Jenkins (of the Washington Post) suggests we must write the equivalent of the Coal Act for the league, with “monetary and criminal penalties for knowing and willful violations of health and safety.” Furthermore, team owners should be committed to covering healthcare costs of former players. Each team should be subject to regular OSHA health and safety audits to accurately record the prevalence of injuries so they may be added to independent records. According to Jenkins, Congress must also weigh in, telling Goodell “Your anti-trust protected, $10-billion-dollar-revenue-producing, nonprofit, corporate-welfare special status is up. You didn’t take care of your business voluntarily. So now it’s our business.”