NFL Suicides and Brain Injury: Are Our Sons Safe?<br />

This week, ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported that former NFL stars Tony Dorsett, Joe DeLamielleure, Leonard Marshall and one unnamed player have been diagnosed with signs of the degenerative, incurable brain disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that can only officially be diagnosed during an autopsy.  These former players are a part of a UCLA study examining the brains of living athletes who have experienced repetitive brain injuries, like concussions.

The symptoms of CTE include depression, disorientation, amnesia, aggression, violence, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts, many of which the three players admitted to having. Though the researchers admit their sample size of eight former players is small, Dr. Julian Bailes, neurosurgeon and co-director of the North Shore Neurological institute, says that these early-stage test results “correlate[] exactly with what we have found at autopsy” and give them hope that the disease can be tracked and possibly treated, “with medication, with intervention, with new discoveries.”

This report comes on the heels of the September suicide of former NFL safety Paul Oliver, who, an autopsy revealed, suffered from CTE. His death mirrored the deaths in recent years of former NFL players Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, Ray Easterling, Shane Dornett and Terri Long--all of whom committed suicide and suffered from CTE.  In addition to deaths from suicide, other researchers have discovered CTE in former NFL stars who have died by accidental drug overdoses, car accidents, accidental shootings and dementia.

Historically, the NFL has categorically denied the long-term impacts of repetitive concussions on its players. In 1994, its Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee concluded that “Concussions are part of the profession, an occupational risk” and that there were no long-term negative health consequences associated with concussions sustained by NFL players all while rejecting the American Academy of Neurology’s 1997 guidelines for concussed athletes returning to play.

Fortunately, in August of this year, the NFL reached a $765 Million settlement with over 4,500 plaintiffs, including Dorsett, DeLamielleure and Marshall, who are suffering or have suffered with brain injuries due to chronic concussions. In addition to compensation for ex-players or their surviving family members, $10 million of the settlement is earmarked for further education and research. The NFL has also begun new helmet technology research and implemented new rules to increase safety.

So, are our boys safe? Every fall 3.5 million boys return to little league teams while 1.3 million return to the Friday nightlights at their high schools.  Is CTE only a problem in the small percentage of football players that reach their NFL dreams? Researchers are now finding evidence of CTE in younger and younger players who never saw the rigors of the NFL gridiron.

In 2009, Mike Borich, a former Western Illinois wide receiver who left football after college, died of a drug overdose at 42 after severe bouts with depression and substance abuse; In 2010, Owen Thomas, a popular 6-foot-2, 240-pound University of Pennsylvania junior hanged himself in his apartment in 2010.  Both of these men’s brains demonstrated the significant tissue damage caused by CTE. 

This disorder is also seen in high school players.  According to Boston University researchers, incipient traces of CTE were found in an 18-year old high school football player who died in 2008.  The most recent death was of 17-year old Nathan Stiles last year, the youngest player to ever be diagnosed with the disease. 

This year, about 12,000 college and high school students are expected to use Guardian Caps, a padded helmet that is said to reduce head impacts by a third. But in light of the significant, long-term consequences football players face, many parents might think twice before putting their sons on the field this season.