Column: For football and CTE, we’ve reached a crossroads

In this Tuesday Jan. 27, 2009, file photo, Dr. Ann McKee, of Boston University School of Medicine, talks about damaged human brains during a news conference about chronic traumatic encephalopathy in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

On March 8, Juliet Macur of the New York Times wrote a follow up on profile of Ryan Hoffman, a former football player for the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, who died impoverished and homeless this past November at the age of 41.

An autopsy and analysis of Hoffman’s brain by researchers at Boston University confirmed suspicions that Hoffman, like so many other former football players, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly known as CTE. 

A Frontline report shows 87 deceased football players have been confirmed as having CTE at various stages of severity. Boston University’s CTE Center defines the disease as a “progressive degenerative disease of the brain… associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.”

While football is one of the most revered American pastimes sewed indelibly into the national heritage, we are coming to a critical moment. Either changes are made, whether with protection or forced retirement guidelines, to limit the devastating impact of CTE, or football’s reputation will continue to degrade.

While current high school and college prospects, as well as professional athletes, are unlikely to give up the game en masse, the flow of new talent will recede. 

In light of suicides, murder-suicides and deaths like that of Hoffman on the bleak street landscape, parents will be less and less likely to allow their children to play football with any serious level of commitment. Once real physical contact is involved, every hit will come with horrific thoughts of brains irrevocably damaged by nothing more than a sport, thoughts which would not have crossed parental minds a decade ago. 

The archaic mindset of “toughening up” kids, both mentally and physically, fails in light of tangible evidence of lives cut short. Allowing children to participate in a sport with a measure of seriousness, when commitment could mean traumatic brain injury is reckless. 

While other sports involve a similar potential for head trauma, more often than not there are theoretical and practical workarounds. The move to remove heading from soccer until over the age of 12 is a good example of a viable change to game rules and regulations. Even if the game has to be fundamentally changed, as removing heading from soccer would, protecting developing youth is far too important. 

CTE has taken the lives of athletes both famous and unknown. For decades we have focused on the dangers of other sports, such as boxing, with each hit reminding onlookers of the bloody reality. While boxing and other sports create a similar potential for repeated head trauma, the sheer number of youth football players is the chief reason for focusing on football in the current time. 

Looking into methods of curtailing head trauma in football will lead to similar advances is less popular sports. If the governing bodies of football wish to see their sport continue to remain popular and permitted by concerned parents and school districts, significant changes must occur.

Considering the vast research and development resources available, manufacturers and professional teams must lead the search for viable solutions to the problem of traumatic head injury. Instead of spending millions attempting to hush evidence and exposure, such as with the recent film “Concussion,” the NFL and others must pool their resources to find a solution.

We are not attempting to land a man on the moon or find the secret to everlasting youth. If funds are provided and transparency is afforded, a solution can and will be found.

According to a Marist study, 33 percent of parents are less likely to allow their child to participate in football due to knowledge of CTE and the danger of hard hits. If a solution is not found or is not sought with any serious level of commitment, then football will gradually fade from popularity as youth are restricted from playing a sport that parents and guardians know has a high propensity for jeopardizing their quality of life.

Those numbers should frighten legions of football fans and NFL executives. Football does not have an image problem. The sport has a health problem, and one which it cannot afford to hide. Even if only a minute percentage of players will suffer from CTE, is it worth sacrificing lives for the sake of sport? Unless a solution is found, football will begin a long decline.


Christopher Sacco is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.sacco@uconn.edu.