Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel abruptly retired after research paper published finding that 110 of 111 brains of NFL players studied had the degenerative brain disease CTE. Given that Urschel, an MIT Ph.D. student, is more qualified to assess such research than any other player in the NFL, many saw his retirement as a sign that a player who really understands the risks will decide that playing in the NFL is not worth it.
Urschel says it’s not that simple.
In a lengthy interview for the Freakonomics podcast, Urschel said he doesn’t believe the headlines that came out of that study, suggesting that 99 percent of NFL players get CTE.
“The big headline is, 99 percent of NFL brains they looked at had CTE,” Urschel said. “To NFL players that ask me my opinions about it, I said, ‘Listen, do not look at this like, 99 percent chance that I have CTE.’ Because that is far from what this is saying.”
In fact, Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who has studied NFL players’ brains, said exactly that: According to McKee, “that number became larger than life.” It’s not accurate to say that because more than 99 percent of players’ brains in this study had CTE, that means more than 99 percent of all players will develop CTE. As Urschel explains, the players whose brains are studied are volunteers — and most people who volunteer their brains to be studied do so because they’re experiencing what they believe are symptoms of brain damage. That’s referred to as selection bias, and it’s a major problem with research studies like the ones that have been conducted on NFL players’ brains.
“There’s a strong, strong case of self-selection bias there. And that cannot be ignored,” Urschel said. “I can’t say that I know for certain that it’s self-selection bias, but my instincts tell me that it’s extremely, extremely likely that it is.”
At the same time, Urschel acknowledged that while he doesn’t believe 99 percent of NFL players develop CTE, he did hear about the study and immediately begin to question if it was time for him to retire.
“This thing comes out, and obviously it’s not 99 percent. It’s 99 percent in the study, but is my chance 99 percent? I highly, highly doubt it. Is it 0 percent? I highly, highly doubt it,” Urschel said. “But the biggest thing it did was, it made me say, ‘I should probably think about this again.’ Not like, ‘OK, this new evidence is extremely overwhelming to change my opinion,’ it’s more like, ‘This really brings something to my attention in a really real way, that I was more or less aware of but attempting to ignore to a degree.’ In the back of my head I had already been having these thoughts.”
As he had those thoughts, Urschel consulted with both his mother and his fiancée, and they both supported him retiring. His father, on the other hand, would have liked to see him continue his NFL career. Ultimately, Urschel decided to quit, thinking about the time he suffered a concussion and struggled with his math work in the days afterward.
“It was tough for me to do high-level math,” Urschel said of the days following a concussion. “I really tried to, I really wanted to because there was a paper I had been working on that I was really proud of because it was going to be my first big solo-authored math paper, and I wanted to keep working on it to finish it, and I really couldn’t because I had a hard time thinking through things and visualizing things. Thankfully I got the paper done and I was really happy to have it accepted. So it all ended well, but at the time I was frustrated.”
Not wanting to feel that kind of frustration again was part of his decision, as was the fact that he isn’t as attracted to the millions of dollars he could earn in the NFL as some players are.
“I don’t really spend money that much and I’m quite happy with my bank account. There’s nothing I really want to spend money on. I buy books on occasion, like chess books, math books. That’s about it,” Urschel said.
Having said all that, Urschel doesn’t want people using him as an example of why other players should walk away from football.
“I love the NFL, I love football and I wouldn’t trade my experiences for the world, and I do believe football is a great game, and I didn’t want to be, for lack of a better word, fodder for certain anti-football establishments,” Urschel said.
So there you have it: One of the smartest players in NFL history has a well-reasoned view of the topic, which doesn’t fit neatly into either a pro-football or anti-football narrative.