The game of American football may have come up against its greatest external threat, which also happens to be an internal threat that has been around all along.
The long-term effects of concussions weren’t much talked about until recent years. There had been whispers for decades, which the NFL tried to ignore, but it wasn’t until the highly popular Junior Seau died that the problem moved front and center. Just a few years removed from remarkable collegiate and pro football careers, Seau committed suicide. It was discovered later that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), a disease that many believe affects an overwhelming number of professional football players.
A new study helps somewhat quantify the problem.
Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist, has examined the brains of 202 deceased football players. A broad survey of her findings was published on Tuesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Of the 202 players, 111 of them played in the N.F.L. — and 110 of those were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., the degenerative disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.
C.T.E. causes myriad symptoms, including memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia. The problems can arise years after the blows to the head have stopped.
Dr. McKee admits to a “tremendous selection bias” in the study because many of the brains that were donated were offered to her from families of players who were thought to have suffered from C.T.E.
Even so, her findings represent an alarming number:
But 110 positives remain significant scientific evidence of an N.F.L. player’s risk of developing C.T.E., which can be diagnosed only after death. About 1,300 former players have died since the B.U. group began examining brains. So even if every one of the other 1,200 players had tested negative — which even the heartiest skeptics would agree could not possibly be the case — the minimum C.T.E. prevalence would be close to 9 percent, vastly higher than in the general population.
It is not inconceivable that football as we know it in America won’t be around much longer. High schools are already dropping the sport because kids are being steered away to safer alternatives. If at some point in the near future high schools have to carry a lot of liability insurance just to have football programs, the sport will really be in danger.
Despite all of this, football is still America’s favorite sport. If it goes anywhere, it probably won’t go quietly. The NFL still has vast resources and will surely devote more and more of them to safety issues.
That, however, doesn’t change the fact that it is an inherently violent sport, and that happens to be a big part of its appeal. We who are fans still love to see bone-jarring tackles made.
There may be no happy medium here unless medicine and technology make some big leaps soon.