For the past couple of years, awareness has dawned on the NFL, and on football in general, about the seriousness of concussions and their effects on long-term health.
A recently performed autopsy may mean that blows to the head, even small ones, are even more serious than previously thought.
Tests recently concluded on Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, who died in December after falling out of the back of a pickup truck, showed that Henry had chronic traumatic encephelopathy, also known as “punch-drunk syndrome."
CTE occurs when a protein, tau, builds up in brain cells, causing them to shut down. CTE has been linked to depression, erratic behavior, substance abuse and suicide. CTE also leads to dementia, leading many with the disorder to slide into an Alzheimer’s-like state later in life.
Henry, who was only 26 when he died and had played five seasons in the NFL, is the youngest person ever diagnosed with CTE, which can only be tested for after the player has died and his brain can be examined.
Even scarier than Henry’s young age is the fact that his position on the field, wide receiver, meant he was involved in a collision on only an estimated 25% of offensive plays. Many players, such as those on the offensive and defensive lines, are involved in head-to-head collisions on nearly every snap.
Henry was also never diagnosed with a concussion, ever. Not in five seasons in the NFL, nor in four years at West Virginia University.
The man who examined Henry’s brain, Dr. Bennet Omalu, is a neuropathologist and co-director of the Brain Injury Research Institute at West Virginia. Omalu is not the first to discover CTE; its effects have been chronicled in boxers since the 1930s. But Omalu’s 2002 autopsy of Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, a linchpin of Pittburgh’s dynasty of the 1970s, began the process of bringing the disorder and its origins to the forefront.
Webster spent the last years of his life living in a Pittsburgh railroad station. His erratic behavior and bouts of rage had alienated him from his friends and family and left him unable to hold a job.
Omalu, whose diagnosis of CTE in Webster was dismissed by the NFL for five years, has since done nine autopsies on ex-NFL players. All nine showed CTE, the brains showing damage akin to patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia. So far more than 50 former athletes in contact sports have been diagnosed with CTE. Other former NFL players, such as Eagles free safety Andre Waters, who was diagnosed with several concussions during his playing career, have committed suicide.
But Henry’s diagnosis sheds a new, scary light on the effects of blows to the head. Research is beginning to point out that numerous, smaller blows to the head are just as dangerous as the big blows that lead to concussions. Isolated findings of CTE in the brains of athletes as young as 18 is also giving researchers reason to worry about the risks involved for high school and college students.
This is frightening for many parents whose children are involved in football and other contact sports. No longer are NFL players with long careers and a documented history of concussions the only ones at risk for long-term health problems. Clearly more evidence needs to be gathered and a test for CTE that can be performed while patients are still alive needs to be developed. But the underlying issue, that head injuries from contact sports cannot, at least with current technology, be prevented, throws the future of football and other contact sports into doubt.