The Broken Gridiron Warriors of the NFL

On October 8, 2013, the PBS program FRONTLINE aired a documentary titled “League of Denial, The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.” The program was an expose′ on what the National Football League (NFL) knew and how it tried to suppress the growing evidence that the disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) affects many NFL veterans.  According to Forbes the NFL’s revenues can reach $25 billion dollars annually, so the financial stakes for the NFL are enormous.  What the NFL knew and when they knew about the link between football and CTE has brought about notorious comparisons between the NFL and denials by the tobacco companies that smoking did not cause cancer.

On August 29, 2013, a settlement was announced between retired football players and the NFL for $765 million.  The settlement ends the possibility that the NFL would have to answer two questions – (1) Did playing football cause CTE? and (2) How many former players have the disease?  There was no admission of guilt by the NFL.  The NFL did not agree to the settlement willingly; they fought every step of the way.  It took pressure from Congress, scorching publicity, suicides by several ex-players including former stars Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, and a massive lawsuit charging that the league misled players about the long-term dangers of concussions.

The link between football and CTE was first discovered by Dr. Bennet Omalu when he examined the brain of former Pittsburg Steeler, Mike Webster.  Webster, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, went from being a well-paid and ferocious gridiron warrior, to a physically and mentally broken and homeless man. During his life, Webster had successfully sued the NFL for disability payments based on the injuries he sustained during his years of playing football.  Dr. Omalu first identified large accumulations of an abnormal protein called tau in Webster’s brain.  Tau kills cells in regions of the brain that are responsible for mood, emotions, and executive functioning.  This, Dr. Omalu surmised, was the reason Webster lost his mental capacity in the last years of his life. Expecting the NFL would welcome his findings, he published a paper titled “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.” He had hoped NFL doctors would embrace such an important discovery: scientific evidence that the kind of repeated blows to the head sustained in football could cause severe, debilitating brain damage. Dr. Omalu expected the NFL would use his research to try and fix the problem.  He could not have been more wrong.  The NFL went on the attack to discredit his findings and ruin him professionally.

Dr. Ann McKee, Co-Director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, has studied the brains of 46 former NFL players and determined that 45 had died with CTE proteins in their brains.  She also studied the brain of an 18 year old high school football player, Eric Pelley, and was stunned to find his young brain also contained CTE.  Dr. McKee’s research has shown that CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma.  Recently published reports have confirmed CTE in retired professional football players and other athletes who have a history of repetitive brain trauma. The trauma triggers a progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of tau, which can start months or years after the last brain trauma occurred.  Brain degeneration is linked to memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.

The story of the battle between the NFL and the researchers is chronicled in a new book titled, “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth,” written by ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru.  The book alleges the NFL used its power and resources to discredit independent scientists and their work; that the league cited research data that minimized the dangers of concussions while emphasizing the league’s own flawed research; and that league executives employed an aggressive public relations strategy designed to keep the public unaware of what league executives really knew about the effects of playing the game.

ESPN wrote that there has never been anything like this in the history of modern sports: a public health crisis that emerged from the playing fields of our 21st century pastime.  And yet,  Americans continue to watch and cheer on their favorite teams every Sunday, blissfully ignorant about what the game is really doing to those men on the field.