Fear of CTE may be unnecessarily freaking out football players

One of the more dire messages from League of Denial came from Dr. Ann McKee.  At one point in the two-hour documentary, Dr. McKee wonders aloud whether all football players, from every level, have Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy due to the constant, low-level banging of helmets on the gridiron.

For anyone whose child plays now (like mine) or who played in the ’70s with those crappy suspension helmets that had no real padding and a translucent single-bar mask that sprouted into two bars near the middle (like me), it’s a chilling thought.

It’s far more chilling for the men who played football every year, from age six through 36.  Are they a week, a month, or a year removed from becoming the next Mike Webster?

Dr. Matt McCarthy addresses this dynamic in a new article posted at Deadspin.  Decades of efforts to suppress the true risks of head injuries could now yield to panic, with anyone who played organized football fearing the kinds of cognitive problems that could end his life or at a minimum ruin it.

Dr. McCarthy points out that, regardless of whether football players are determined to have CTE, the connection to concussions still has not been established by the scientific community:  “At the 4th International Conference on Concussion in Sport . . . world experts gathered to discuss the state of head-trauma science.  At the end of the conference, a consensus statement was released that said the following:  ‘A cause and effect relationship has not as yet been demonstrated between CTE and concussions or exposure to contact sports.’

“The statement runs counter to almost everything you have read about CTE, but it received virtually no media attention in the United States when it was released,” Dr. McCarthy explains.  “In part, that’s because it speaks to the far higher burden of proof in the scientific community than the one in the public consciousness.  But that’s the point.  The popular consensus has far outstripped the science.”

It’s an important point.  Yes, the brains of plenty of deceased football players show evidence of CTE.  But that doesn’t mean everyone who has it will become unstable or suicidal or unable to function cognitively.  There is much to be learned about both the cause and the consequences of the condition.

“For those of us involved in clinical research and accustomed to the sluggish pace of medical advancement, this is not surprising,” Dr. McCarthy writes.  “Some physicians — including [Dr. McKee] — are understandably uncomfortable with this.  As she put it to one of the few reporters who covered the consensus statement:  ‘This is a time that calls for immediate action to reduce the amount of head trauma experienced by athletes in all sports to prevent CTE.  And it is now irresponsible to justify inaction by requesting a level of scientific proof that will take decades to acquire.’  There is no comprehensive body of research into head injuries, but there’s enough to start thinking about change.  So McKee and others have chosen to bang the drum, loudly, even if they can’t be sure of the exact message once we’re listening.”

So what do we now know about head injuries?  We know, as common sense would have suggested even in the days when football players without helmets believed growing long hair would protect their brains, that it’s not good to ram your head into things.  We know that concussions need to be spotted promptly and managed properly.  We know that some NFL players develop brain damage and conditions like Alzheimer’s and ALS.

Connecting the dots to specific causes and consequences will, as Dr. McCarthy explains, take time.  As the research is conducted, it’s important to not yield to the potential for hysteria that goes along with dire, but to date unsubstantiated, predictions of a nation of male middle-aged zombies who can’t function due to the brain damage that comes from playing football at any level, for any amount of time.

20 responses to “Fear of CTE may be unnecessarily freaking out football players

  1. Perhaps a concussion is not required for this condition to develop. Perhaps repeated trauma at the sub-concussion level will do it.

    A problem is the condition right now is only detectable postmortem. It is impossible to trace the development of the condition.

  2. you probably played flag-football in the 5th grade before you retired due to a chipped fingernail

  3. When you start showing the brains of 18 year old kids with CTE, I dont think its an NFL issue but an inherent risk of throwing your head around in a sport. Similar to boxing. I have a feeling that in 20 years we will be wondering why MMA stars are having brain issues at 60?

    This is a common sense issue, not an NFL issue.

  4. If I played football, I’d be concerned. There are a lot of unknowns and as was pointed out in the documentary, the depression and other mental illness markers of former NFL players is way off the chart when compared to normal rates. That right there should be an indication that something is wrong with many former players, they have something that apparently is a symptom of…CTE.

  5. I remember when you didn’t carry the league’s water. Now you can’t get enough of it.

  6. While I am sure there is some correlation between head injuries and illnesses like CTE, Parkinsons, etc. I have always found it to be ridiculous that all these doctors have made claims of causation without a single control study. The only way to diagnose CTE is to look at a dead persons brain tissue, and every single study on CTE and concussions has only looked at the brains of those known to have suffered head trauma. Until they do a study that looks at the incidence of CTE in health brains as compared those that have been subjected to repeated blows to the head, this is all just anecdotal conjecture.

  7. Dr. Matt McCarthy is not a NEUROLOGIST.
    he is completely speaking out of turn.

    So lets follow the league and smear one of the best neurologists in the world who has found some real and very serious information regarding this issue.

  8. .

    In short, Frontline aired 60 minutes of lies, lies, and more lies, but the Deadspin guy is spot-on.


  9. Really all you’re saying is that we need to stay calm and wait for the scientific “formalities” to conclude (in what could be a decade from now).

    Meanwhile, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that bashing your head (on a level similar to driving a car into a brick wall at 35mph, as stated in the documentary) dozens, if not hundreds of times, is going to result in brain trauma having some lasting effect.

    So, let’s not be hysterical and wait for the formalities, right? If there is no football, there are no web sites like this one, and without a web site about football, you’re out of business. That’s certainly a strong reason why he doesn’t want us to be hysterical.

    I played football and suffered multiple concussions. My kids won’t be because, as a parent, we already know enough.

  10. I’ve read many articles discussing the coming crisis of older adults developing Alzheimer’s disease. Given the difficulty of distinguishing CTE from Alzheimer’s disease (pre-mortem), and the projected increased incidence of Alzheimer’s disease among current adults, is it possible that a good amount of Alzheimer’s diagnoses are actually CTE? In living patients, are the two diseases easily distinguished?

  11. Really we should just not come out of our mommies womb. Or maybe we could retrofit them with pouches like a Kangaroo since we’d outgrow the room. Poll at 11:00

  12. We look back at the sport of gladiators as barbaric. Will people in two thousands years from now look back at us and consider football in that same light?

  13. “Matt McCarthy is an Infectious Disease Fellow at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.”

    That’s not the guy I’d consult about neurology.

    The evidence about repetitive head trauma is conclusive. The question seems to be whether a football helmet can prevent it. The evidence is showing that it doesn’t.

    Also, the way players have traditionally used the helmet and facemask as a weapon (i.e. their head as a weapon) is grounds for concern.

    “The evidence isn’t in” sounds like the same line I heard from the tobacco industry (when they knew better), and that I’m hearing about global climate change (the evidence is in and its conclusive, that debate is over).

    The better question is … what can be done to protect the players?

  14. The key phrase in this article “The popular consensus has far outstripped the science.”

    With all the blather and lawsuits, I have yet to see any scientific studies that show greater damage to football players than to baseball, soccer, and basketball players. I know that a lot of people think that it is only logical that football players would suffer more than other athletes, but where is the science? We have it for boxers, but not for football players.

    To dismiss real scientists insistence on real science by passing it off as self-serving by the NFL is ad hominun argumentation.

  15. The current data points to both an abnormally high incidence of CTE in the brains examined as well as abnormally high instances of mental health changes seen in both current former NFL players which are the same type as people with CTE. Remember that Bengals WR, Chris Henry’s autopsy showed he had CTE.

    When the tobacco companies started shipping cigarettes to troops in WWI, it wasn’t long after MDs were seeing lung cancer, a previously rare disease, in large numbers. And in the 90s you have tobacco executives saying there is no link between the two. Really? The NFL is going down the same road.

    What is needed isn’t MDs saying there isn’t enough data, what is needed are statisticians to tell us how much the little data that’s been collected suggests about if there is a problem, or not, so decisions can be made now, not decades from now when enough data is collected to get a better picture of all the details, but now.

    However, I fear the amount of money involved is going to mean even if the issue is massive that nothing is going to be done. That is the true shame of it all.

  16. “Where is the science? We have it for boxers, but not for football players.”

    Considering both sports involve bashing their brains in repetitively….I think it’s safe to say science isn’t necessary to say there would be no difference in the outcome.

    You can bash your head in while you wait for the proof, by the time they find it, you’ll already have dementia.

    44 out of 45 brains found with CTE, NOT all of them with recorded concussion history, some of them in 18 and 21 year olds WITHOUT concussion history is enough to raise some eyebrows.

  17. Shocking – it the reporter a shill for the NFL? Let’s delay, delay, delay, to keep the billions rolling in while the brains and lives of the players are destroyed. Did you also write in the ’90s that there was a lack of data to support that smoking is addictive and causes cancer? Shame on you.

  18. The tobacco industry was in denial when I started my first job in the real world as a chemist analyzing cigarette smoke in 1963.


    That was when the first Surgeon General report on smoking came out, I believe.

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