Letter to the Editor: Will CTE be the end of football?

Football has been known as a brutal sport since its creation. Nicknamed the gridiron, football is a game of strength, speed, and durability. As an avid Ravens fan and sports fan in general, I’ve seen my fair share of nasty hits. One example was Bernard Pollard’s hit on Stevan Ridley’s in the 2013 AFC Championship Game. I remember it clearly; Ridley looked like he has asleep on the field.  As a Ravens fan I couldn’t contain my excitement, but as a person I was shocked by the viciousness of the hit. While I love football and watching it, I decided then my kid would never play. While it’s obvious all sports have a hint to danger and injury to them, football escalates those odds; especially permanently sustained injuries. CTE and Concussions are one such example of a prolonging injury. CTE, or Chronic Trauma Encephalopathy, is caused by multiple concussions or repeated head traumas. CTE is caused by the onset of repetitive concussions, especially those that arise from violent hits seen every game in football. CTE has been becoming more and more prevalent in football, along with research explaining how deadly they really can be. This raises an important question -- what exactly are concussions, and how can we make football safer? Is it time for the end of the gridiron?

Concussions are caused by a hard hit, bump, or blow to the body that causes the head to move rapidly back and forth. When this sensation occurs, the brain hits the walls of the cranium, causing brain cells to become outstretched and damaged. As someone who has had multiple concussions, I can tell you they aren’t fun. Anything that strains your eyes causes a pain in your head, dizziness, nausea, etc. But, these are only short term problems experienced with concussions. One or two concussions aren’t life-threatening, but multiple concussions can lead to CTE which causes long-term effects (which thankfully I haven’t experienced) that are much more severe. A study done by researchers at the University of New Hampshire tested two groups of 18-24 year olds; one group having sustained 2 or more concussions (with the most recent being at least a month before the test), and a group with no concussions. After monitoring memory speed and brainwave activity, they concluded that those who experienced multiple concussions had lower brain processing and activity than those who had experienced none. More specifically, activities that caused the participant to switch tasks (find a color then a shape) were especially poor. This led to the conclusion that with concussions, the brain's ability to communicate information becomes diminished. So with our knowledge of how dangerous concussions can be in the long run, we now turn our attention to the prevalence in football.
Concussions and CTE have been becoming more and more popular in the media over the years. It began with Junior Seau, a former NFL player who committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He wanted to keep his brain intact so scientists would be able to analyze the effects that such vicious contact can do to your body. Ever since then, more and more evidence has been piled against CTE, specifically in football. One study, led by researchers at Boston University, analyzed the brains of 202 former football players. Within these brains, they found that 87% had shown signs of CTE from repetitive head trauma. To test CTE, they look for the marker in the brain -- a bunch of neuronal clumps of a protein called tau. What the also found out, astonishingly, is that whether brain changes in these player were mild or severe, all men experienced mood, behavioral, and/or cognitive problems associated with CTE. This study showcases the severity of concussions; once you go past a certain point, the brain is unable to repair itself and progressively becomes worse.

With all the evidence about the dangers of football, the questions arises if should end football in the future? A sport this dangerous should not be condoned going forward right? In a perfect world I would agree, but we live in something far from it. Football is a revenue goldmine in America. Wherever you look you see an NFL team, the NFL logo, or even a sponsor that gives money to the league. Also, there is so much comradery and passion surrounding both professional and college football (especially in the South), that if football was to be ended America would go on a complete riot. It’s just not possible to just rip out football root and stem because football is a huge part of American Culture.


Another two big reason footballs will continue to go on are the advancements in safety, as well as risk compared to other sports. Like I mentioned earlier, all sports have a hint of danger to them. A study done by researchers in the United Kingdom examined the brains of soccer player for CTE from repeated concussions. what they found was that all 14 players tested showed signs of the disease. While the research itself doesn’t suggest a higher risk from playing soccer, it highlights the possibility for more research into contact sports, and that CTE doesn’t just evolve from the true contact sports (football, hockey). But, what they did find form the study that all these players were known for heading the ball, which could directly impact CTE diagnosis. Football isn’t the only sport where CTE is prevalent, so it would be farfetched to end the sport because of the disease. What we can do, instead, is modify equipment to ensure the safety of all players.


The NFL and football community has been implementing new and safer equipment to try and minimize all injuries, especially head ones. These advancements focus on helmets and mouthguards. Why the NFL is focusing on helmets is obvious: when a helmet absorbs more impact it will reduce the jolt of the player’s head inside. Researchers at UCLA are looking to use a material called “Architected Lattice”, which is a substance used to absorb most of the hit sustained by a tackle. It was shown to reduce impact force by 26% compared to normal helmets. Another advancement is the implementation and encouragement of mouth guards. Mouth guards, when worn properly, absorb a lot of impact that would normally be felt by your teeth colliding together. With this phenomena, it only enhances the trauma caused by head injuries. While studies show that mouth guards decrease concussion symptoms, it is unclear by how effective it really is. There have been concurrent research studies that show custom-made mouthguards are better while some say all generic guards have the same effect. One thing is for certain, however, advancement in technology only means safer equipment for our players (“5 ways to..”)


Overall, football is a vicious game of passions and controversy. I feel like people I know either love football, or hate it, there’s really no in-between. While football is something I would never immerse myself into, it is slowly becoming more safer to pass down to the younger generation. In a recent study done in January of 2019, the NFL found a remarkable 26% decrease in concussions from last year. With a total of 190 concussions, it is the lowest number in 13 years. Researchers are crediting both safer equipment and rule changes as the cause. With more touchbacks on kickoffs (when the kicker kicks the ball out of bounds behind the end zone), there is less high-speed collisions with players. The NFLPA (players association) also found that, on the last week of the season in 2018, 71% of players were wearing improved helmets, compared to only 46% from the previous season. As we strive towards the future, we have nowhere to go but up. While our scientific advancements are making the field a better place to be, we can still be better. Whether it comes from completely new equipments, new rules, or even a new game, America and the rest of the world will need to learn how to tackle CTE.