Editorial: Football and CTE: The dilemma for parents
The names of NFL players tormented by the degenerative brain disease CTE are well-known: Dave Duerson, Mike Webster, Junior Seau, to name a few. Parents would be smart to familiarize themselves with another name linked with chronic traumatic encephalopathy: Zac Easter.
Zac began playing organized football when he was 8 and didn't stop until his senior year of high school in Indianola, Iowa. Concussions marred his days as a linebacker. After he stopped playing, Zac coped with depression, headaches and slurred speech. At 24, he took a shotgun from his father's truck, drove to a state park, and blasted a hole into his chest. A postmortem examination of Zac's brain confirmed what the young man had long suspected: He suffered from CTE.
CTE is back in the news, thanks to a study led by Ann McKee, director of Boston University's CTE Center. McKee and her team examined the brains of 111 deceased NFL players and found that all but one had CTE, a degenerative disease associated with head trauma and linked to symptoms that include depression, dementia and memory loss. McKee also found CTE in three of 14 deceased former high school football players, and 48 of 53 deceased former players at the college level.
Last year, 3 million kids ages 6 to 18 played organized football in the U.S. In Illinois in 2014, nearly 47,000 boys played high school football. McKee's findings should give parents of youths playing football a reason to stop and think: Given what we know now about CTE, does tackle football still make sense for their kids?
Organizers of youth football leagues, as well as administrators of schools with football programs, should ask the same question. Growing concerns about liability should be part of that calculation. America's largest youth football league, Pop Warner, settled a $5 million lawsuit in 2016 with the family of a former player from Wisconsin who joined the league at 11 and played for four years. He committed suicide at 25, and an examination of his brain revealed CTE.
But it's not primarily a money issue. Consider the science behind CTE. Repeated blows to the head cause the buildup of an abnormal protein that degenerates brain tissue. Areas of the brain vulnerable to CTE include those that govern cognition, working memory, abstract reasoning, planning, emotional control and aggression. CTE has also been linked to the onset of ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, later in life.
Football won't disappear from our TV screens and 80,000-seat stadiums anytime soon. Nevertheless, the NFL, albeit belatedly, is taking the matter of concussions, head trauma and CTE seriously. It has publicly acknowledged the link between CTE and football, and vowed to set aside millions of dollars to bankroll independent medical research into the disorder. Players are also taking notice. Some have hung up their cleats rather than risk long-term damage. On July 27, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel retired at 26, after just three seasons. Team sources told The Baltimore Sun his decision was linked to McKee's findings.
Youth leagues and high schools have reacted with a bevy of safety measures, from scaling back the amount of contact in practices to teaching safe tackling and blocking techniques. Whether those measures will be enough remains to be seen.
McKee, who has studied the link between football and CTE for years, says she is particularly troubled by the number of former college players with the disease. Of the college players that had CTE, a majority of them exhibited a level of the disease that was severe rather than mild. "To me, it's very concerning that we have college-level players who have severe CTE who did not go on to play professionally," McKee told The Washington Post. "That means they mostly likely retired before the age of 25, and we still are seeing in some of those individuals very severe repercussions."
CTE researchers have amassed a formidable body of knowledge about the disease and its link to football, but there's more exploration to do. For example, since CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously, researchers can study only brains donated by the families of players who have died. Those families have cooperated because the players had symptoms of CTE. That means researchers still don't know just how prevalent the disease is.
The Des Moines Register reported that Zac Easter kept a journal he called "Concussions: My Silent Struggle." The paper said he shot himself in the chest rather than the head because he wanted his brain examined for evidence of CTE.
"I'm horrified every time an athlete runs out on a field on a Friday night," Zac's mother, Brenda Easter, told the Register after learning of McKee's latest findings. "We don't know who the next Zac is going to be."
Parents, as you mull the pros and cons of allowing your children to play tackle football, keep Zac and his mother in mind.
— The Chicago Tribune, Aug. 4