December 8, 2019

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Opinion

CTE discovery could be catastrophic head shot in football's future

There’s been all kinds of loose talk about the extraordinary events of the past week being nothing short of a game-changer in the world of professional sports.

I agree, except I’d argue that it is a pioneering new diagnostic test for chronic traumatic encephalopathy that you probably didn’t hear about — rather than a new round of anthem protests that you definitely did — that will forever change sports as we know it.

Lost amid all the hyperventilating about whether pro athletes do or don’t have the right to kneel during performances of The Star-Spangled Banner was the stunning news Monday that researchers at Boston University are on the verge of developing a way to test for CTE in living people.

This combination of photos provided by Boston University shows sections from a normal brain, top, and from the brain of former University of Texas football player Greg Ploetz, bottom, in stage IV of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. According to a report released on Tuesday, July 25, 2017 by the Journal of the American Medical Association, research on the brains of 202 former football players has confirmed what many feared in life: evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a devastating disease in nearly all the samples, from athletes in the NFL, college and even high school.

DR. ANN MCKEE/BU VIA AP

This combination of photos provided by Boston University shows sections from a normal brain, top, and from the brain of former University of Texas football player Greg Ploetz, bottom, in stage IV of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. According to a report released on Tuesday, July 25, 2017 by the Journal of the American Medical Association, research on the brains of 202 former football players has confirmed what many feared in life: evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a devastating disease in nearly all the samples, from athletes in the NFL, college and even high school.

You want massive change? It’s not Tom Brady locking arms with a teammate or Jerry Jones taking a knee; that stuff had very little to do with promoting social change and much more to do with cynical public relations and the NFL turning legitimate protest into yet another brand-building exercise.

No, what we will remember from this week long after the NFL has gone back to doing what the NFL does best — making money and selling shoes to Republicans and Democrats alike — is that it became impossible to deny the undeniable:

Playing football is very, very bad for football players.

Until this week, all we’ve been able to say with certainty is that CTE sure turns up in a shockingly high percentage of dead football players.

That’s because until this week, the only way to test for CTE was to wait for a player to die and then autopsy his brain.

The results to this point — like the degenerative disease itself — have been staggering: the brains of 110 of 111 deceased NFL players studied by researchers at Boston University had CTE, according to the results of a study released in July.

And it’s not just NFL players, either. The same study found seven of eight CFL players studied also had CTE, as did 48 of 53 college players, nine of 14 semi-pro players and — I’d argue, most alarmingly of all — three of 14 high school football players.

Put it all together and the BU researchers found the presence of CTE in more than 90 per cent of the brains of dead football players they studied.

And that’s what makes the news out of the university Monday — researchers have identified a telltale protein associated with CTE that could lead to the development of a new diagnostic test in as little as a year — a tipping point.

Because let’s face it: If there is CTE present in the brains of 90 per cent of dead football players, there is also potentially CTE present in the brains of 90 per cent of living football players.

And if we now have a way to test for that — in the NFL, in the CFL, at the college and university level, in high school and yes, even in Pop Warner — well, that changes everything.

Think about what it might mean if we can soon test for CTE at any stage in a player’s career.

Will high schools demand players be tested — for liability purposes as much as anything else — before kids are allowed to take the field?

This combination of PET scans provided by UCLA on April 2, 2015 shows, from left, a normal brain scan, suspected Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) subjects, and a subject with Alzheimer's disease.

AP PHOTO/PNAS/DAVID GEFFEN SCHOOL OF MEDICINE AT UCLA

This combination of PET scans provided by UCLA on April 2, 2015 shows, from left, a normal brain scan, suspected Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) subjects, and a subject with Alzheimer's disease.

Will colleges, universities and professional leagues make the same demand, and for the same reason?

Will teams make a CTE test a part of a player’s annual physical? And, if so, will a superstar be forced to retire in mid-career because of a suddenly positive result?

And, even while you’re pondering the potentially far-reaching implications of all that, ponder this:

At what point are there no more football players left to test because there are simply no more football players?

If a CTE test turns up the presence of the disease in living players at rates even remotely resembling those found in the dead, that becomes, quite literally, an extinction-level event for the game.

Who is going to be left to play if the sport is definitively found to coincide — at shockingly high rates — with a condition that causes everything from headaches and memory loss to behavioural problems, depression, dementia and suicide?

Even before Monday's news, there was already increasing anecdotal evidence the past few months that the mounting CTE research was already beginning to drive people out of football:

• Former Winnipegger John Urschel announced his early retirement from the Baltimore Ravens just days after July's study results were published; sources said that was a big reason for his decision.

• ESPN football analyst Ed Cunningham quit in the summer, saying he could no longer promote a sport linked with brain disease.

• New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees announced he was starting a flag-football league "to save the game of football, honestly." Brees has four kids and says he has forbidden all of them from playing tackle football.

And if you think this is just a football problem, think again. Research has determined that repeated blows to the head lead to high rates of CTE in football players. But repeated blows to the head are not confined to the gridiron.

In this Sept. 16, 2017, file photo, Oregon State quarterback Jake Luton is carted off the field after suffering an injury during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash. Oregon State's game against Washington in Corvallis, Ore.

AP PHOTO/YOUNG KWAK, FILE

In this Sept. 16, 2017, file photo, Oregon State quarterback Jake Luton is carted off the field after suffering an injury during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash. Oregon State's game against Washington in Corvallis, Ore.

A five year NCAA study found hockey players have the second-highest rates of concussions in collegiate sports, ahead of even football players and behind only wrestlers.

And in addition to finding CTE in dead football players, Boston University researchers have also identified CTE in the brains of four men who played in the NHL: Reggie Fleming, Rick Martin, Derek Boogaard and Bob Probert. A fifth deceased NHLer — Steve Montador — was also said to be suffering from CTE when he died.

And then layer on top of all that an ongoing class-action lawsuit in the United States in which more than 100 former players are suing the NHL, alleging the league knew the dangers of concussions and head traumas and didn’t do enough to protect them.

All of which is to say that CTE — and the far-reaching implications of a breakthrough diagnostic test — could end up affecting hockey, too.

Now, there will always be, I suppose, young men willing to take on any risk to pursue a dream of playing professional sport.

Days after Boston University released the results of the concussion study in July, New York Jets rookie Jamal Adams told a fan forum that the data wouldn't deter him, saying he loved football so much, "If I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field.

Now, it’s one thing to make a comment like that when you’re a young man and CTE is just a theoretical — and a long way off — possibility in your life.

It would be quite another, however, if doctors told you that a test has revealed you already have it.

There’s nothing like hearing a positive test result while sitting across from a doctor to wipe away the swagger and get a man thinking seriously about his own mortality.

And that’s what made the new Boston University protein discovery so groundbreaking. And the researchers found the levels of that protein increased the longer the player was in the game.

They're optimistic about being able to do the same test in the living before long.

Let’s hope so. Ignorance is bliss, but it’s also potentially deadly. Players not only have a right to know what the game is doing to them — they have a need to know.

And you cannot help but wonder if, when players find out, the game will be facing third and very long.

In a week in which the NFL took a knee, it was the announcement of a new diagnostic test for CTE that threatens to bring the entire sport to its knees.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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