Headshot: Why CTE might have just delivered a blow to the NFL

I’m legitimately afraid for NFL players.

96% of brains recently tested in a VA clinic and Boston University study have tested positive for CTE.

That metric is terrifying. For someone who has played full contact football from ages 8-26, I have a hard time reading the study.

Ok, CTE hasn’t truly been fully understood, but this study at least sheds on light on a possible cause, mainly repeated blows to the head. The freaky part is that these hits don’t have to be violent concussive blows. In fact, repeated “mild”, everyday hits may be more of a cause than massive hits.

How many of those small, repeated hits have I taken or delivered in my life? Tens of thousands.

What about someone who played 7-8 years of full time football at an impact position, like say, recently retired Patrick Willis? 100,000+ maybe? Double that with a guy like Ray Lewis who played 16 years or so?

That’s why, in 2011, the NFLPA negotiated to reduce practice times, number of training camp practices and number of padded practices. This helps reduce those small helmet collisions. So many people complain about that, but many have never had their lively hood depend on how well they can hit someone else as hard as they can with their head, like say, a fullback or linebacker.

Doubting the validity of CTE

Many think CTE is sensationalism. They say the media has hyped it to create a story like the West Nile Virus or swine flu. Some might even say the recent deaths of Junior Seau and others are anomalies and don’t prove anything in regards to CTE and it’s relationship to football.

It’s a lot easier to speculate when you work an office job. What if I told you that sitting all day at your desk was actually slowly killing you, would you still do it? (Oh wait, people are telling us that.)

My point is, if I am in the NFL and I have the choice of walking away or to keep playing football after reading this study, I would leave.

Older NFL pundits have argued that players understand the sacrifice they’re making when they put on their helmet that this would take years off their life.

I’m not sure they do.

So you mean to tell me if you knew you had a 80-ish% chance of developing CTE and possibly losing your memory or committing suicide that you would take the NFL paycheck and suit up?

Take the sepia colored glasses off. This isn’t the 1970’s and 80’s where macho bravado reigns.

I’d have to imagine that most players (like me) knew the risks, but they viewed risks as mostly physical: torn ligaments, broken bones, joint replacements etc. As bad as those consequences are (I personally think they’re a small price to pay for competing in the NFL), they pale in comparison to the ramifications of CTE. And I highly doubt most men who have played were actively thinking about CTE as a consequence.

I’m sorry mr. ESPN pundit, but little Johnny wasn’t thinking that one day if he was lucky enough to grow up and compete in the NFL that he might lose his memory right before his wife and daughter’s eyes, like former Colts tight end Ben Utecht, because of repeated hits. Ben Utecht sums up his emotions towards brain injury: “I just began to see how this was an injury that wasn’t just affecting my stride or my walk, this was something that was beginning to affect my personality….It changes who you are.” I’m not calling anyone a victim, but the point is we didn’t fully know what we were getting ourselves into. We thought it might be bad, sure. But watching it play out is sobering us up really fast.

What are the consequences for the NFL of these CTE studies?

The NFL is poised to lose quality athletes who, as these studies begin to come out, will decide to leave football either at the High school, college or even professional level.

The Exodus is just beginning. former 49er Chris Borland and a few others have retired due to fears and they aren’t unfounded fears. Many parents will lean towards putting their kids in other sports like baseball, basketball and others, shrinking the pool of potential athletes.

Will this crush the NFL? I don’t think so. The NFL is a giant. Many players will justify the money and fame for the consequences. I can see why. But while 25, young, rich and famous is nice, 55 with CTE and losing your memory in front of your family is too bone chilling to ignore.

The NFL knows this. This is why Junior Seau’s family could not speak at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony (what might they have said to shed light on brain injuries?). This is why Will Smith’s new movie on CTE is being modified with the ‘help’ of the NFL. The NFL has an image to protect, but it can’t publicly hide the dangers of this and then privately fully educate it’s players effectively.

Tell the full story

Here’s what the NFL should do. Tell the full story. Share the details of CTE. Let players understand the dangers. Give them a fully-informed, explicit decision to walk away from playing the game. Right no Player lead studies and studies facilitated by the NFLPA is what is doing the most educating of the players.

Most importantly, if the NFL makes 15 billion dollars a year in annual revenue, it should do more to educate and protect not only current NFL players, but prospective players on the full risks of head trauma. Sure they have this new “concussion protocol”, but at this point, it’s just a best guess as to what might be safe. So if you have no symptoms for a week, you are ready for a full contact hit again? I think all of our gut feelings say NO. But there is money to be made.

So now what?

I love the NFL. I played in it for a little bit. I watch it as a huge fan. I love the impact it’s had on me and millions of young people who have had something to aspire to be and work towards. So i’m conflicted.

I think the thing that’s harming the players is what draws us to watch it: the risk. People will not stop watching this sport anytime soon. It’s to exciting and engaging.

But for me personally, i’m happy i only played the length that I did. I’m thankful for my IR year and my practice squad year. Those years helped limit those hits, even when in the moment I was unhappy with my situation.

I also think down the road, my wife and children will be grateful that thier dad/husband is around mentally and physically. Some will say that the NFL is not worth that peace of mind, but staring at my children this morning, I have a very hard time agreeing with them.

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