On Football, CTE, And Its (Not So) Bleak Future

When you love something a lot, you’ll make any excuse possible to keep loving it, no matter how unhealthy it may be. Whether it’s a toxic relationship or skydiving naked over the arctic, our desire to love and preserve such love knows no bounds. It’s a testament to the power of excuses and our capacity for excuse banking.

We’ve all loved something that may or may not be unhealthy, if not downright toxic, at some point in our lives. We may know in the back of our heads that it’s unhealthy. We may even admit it to someone. That still doesn’t stop us from loving it. We’ll still try to find a way to make that love work. Like an alcoholic or a heavy smoker in denial, we don’t want to admit its a problem. In the long run, it often comes back to hurt us.

I say all this because in recent years, there are a growing number of voices calling American football the new tobacco. Apparently, getting hit in the head by a bunch of 200-pound athletes is just as dangerous as inhaling smoke. In the same way smoking contributes to dreaded diseases like lung cancer, football contributes to a new dreaded disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

CTE has become the most dreaded three-letter acronym to football players since ACL. It is a new kind of disease, one that ravages the brain of former athletes. It causes all sorts of horrors such as headaches, memory loss, erratic behavior, dementia, tremors, vertigo, and suicidal tendencies. These are symptoms that can’t get more terrifying without involving explosive diarrhea.

It has already rocked the sport, so much so that it inspired a crappy Will Smith movie called “Concussion.” Sure, it tanked, but it helped raise awareness to the issue for fans and players alike. In wake of the deaths of several high-profile football players, including Hall of Famers like Ken Stabler and Junior Seau, it’s taken on a tragic element that cannot be ignored.

Then, just this past week, a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association published a report that probably has everyone at NFL offices banging their heads against the wall, if only to provide a sense of irony. Of the 111 brains of former football players they studied, 110 showed signs of CTE. In terms of sheer math, you literally can’t get a correlation that more precise without being paid for by oil companies.

This has led many to speculate that football’s days are numbered. Never mind the fact that it’s still, by a wide margin, the most popular sport in America. Never mind the fact that it generates billions in revenue and has some of the most passionate fans of any sport. An issue like this is just too damaging. A disease as awful as CTE is bound to drive people away from this sport, right?

Okay, I’m going to stop with the dire doom-saying rhetoric and call a timeout on the whole conversation. I do so while freely admitting, and admitting proudly, that I love NFL football and football in general. It is my favorite sport. I build my entire Sundays around watching NFL games.

I acknowledge that it’s a violent sport, one that leads to major injuries for various players. I make no excuses in my love for that kind of gladiator-style violence. I’m as human as anyone else reading this blog. Violent sports appeal to the primal parts of our brains. Like admitting you love an extra orgasm every now and then, there’s nothing wrong with admitting you love contact sports.

Does that make fans and team owners bad people for promoting a sport that leads to such a terrible health ailment like CTE? The answer is no. It doesn’t, not unless you’re willing to say car companies and car buyers are terrible people for promoting a product that killed over 32,000 people in the United States alone in 2015.

However, football fans and the NFL can take comfort in the knowledge that car companies have already created a model for addressing issues like CTE. There was no getting around it, even during the days of Henry Ford. Cars could be very dangerous to those who drove them and drove them poorly. Early cars were basically steel death traps.

Since killing customers is never a good business practice, car companies invested heavily in new safety features. They developed now-standard features such as air bags, seat-belts, and even on-board computers that stop your car for you. Cars today are safer than they’ve ever been before.

So how does this help football? A car is different from a human brain by orders of magnitude. The sheer complexity of the human brain ensures that a helmet or an airbag just isn’t going to cut it in terms of protection. We barely understand how the damn thing works. How can we hope to protect it?

Well, keep in mind that people once said the same thing about mapping the human genome. The human brain isn’t some magical object that runs on wizard spells and unicorn farts. It’s a hunk of biomatter no bigger than a football, ironically enough. It operates on the basic rules of chemistry and biology. It’s not some rough-cut diamond wherein one single flaw means it can never be fixed.

The brain can and does heal itself. It has to in a chaotic world that most people struggle to process. Sure, the damage endured by football players is greater than most. You can say that about anyone who spends four hours out of the week putting a target on their head and inviting others to hit it. What you can’t say, however, is that the problem of damaged brains in contact sports is insurmountable.

We’re not talking about teaching quantum physics to a hamster, here. We’re talking about a physical problem with the human body. As flawed as the human body may be, it’s also fairly malleable. The brain is no exception.

Back in 2013, a kid in North Carolina had half his brain cut out to alleviate his debilitating seizures. There’s no amount of head trauma any football player could endure that’s akin to having half a brain cut out. However, the kid recovered and his brain was able to effectively rewire itself so he could live a fairly normal life. That’s because of a little thing called neuroplasticity.

That’s just a fancy technical way of saying the brain can rewire and repair itself. Given how humans adapted in an environment full of giant predators and coconuts falling from trees, we kind of need our brains to do that sort of thing. The only issue is we still don’t understand it. However, we do understand the horrific damage done by diseases like CTE.

Therein lies the flaw in debate surrounding the future of football. It deals with something with which we don’t have a clear understanding. Even those who participated in the CTE study clearly admitted that it had its flaws. One of the researchers said:

“Families don’t donate brains of their loved ones unless they’re concerned about the person. So all the players in this study, on some level, were symptomatic. That leaves you with a very skewed population.”

That’s entirely understandable and a common problem within the realm of science. However, that will do little to alleviate the fear and dread among football players and football fans. We’re already seeing some players retire early due to concerns about concussions. Who can blame them, though? It’s a scary thought, the idea that playing a sport you love will destroy your brain.

However, fear often obscures the lens of reality. Add doom-saying, such as those who think a multi-billion dollar industry like the NFL is going to die, and you can expect reality to disappear from the conversation. The truth, in a sense, is not something you’ll find in a Will Smith movie. It also gives football fans and football players reason to hope.

Since the problem of CTE is a physical health problem, then that means there is a medical solution. Sure, there’s a lot we don’t understand about the human brain or healing it, but you could’ve made that same argument back in the 80s when AIDS was first discovered. For a while, that was a true death sentence. Now, we have treatments that make the disease manageable.

Keep in mind, though, that diseases like AIDS didn’t have a multi-billion dollar industry like the NFL with huge incentives to develop such treatments. When there’s a problem to be solved and there’s a multi-billion dollar industry with an incentive to solve it, you can probably assume said industry will invest billions in treating that problem.

That means if you’re a brain researcher and you develop a treatment for concussions, you can expect a lot of money from the NFL and various sports organizations to support you. Hell, Jerry Jones from the Dallas Cowboys will probably fly you to a resort and have the Dallas Cheerleaders give you unlimited massages.

CTE is a major issue, but it’s a solvable issue. On top of preventative measures like better helmets, medical science can help. That same science is what cured Small Pox, Polio, and is on the verge of eliminating many diseases with tools like CRISPR. It’s more than up to the challenge to tackle something like CTE.

Now that awareness of the disease is growing, you can expect the NFL and medical science to start pressuring it. That’s why football is going to be okay. This isn’t like smoking. This isn’t like human sacrifice. This is a problem that can only be solved with better tools. Say what you will about the flaws in humanity. We’re still exceptionally good at certain things and making tools is one of them.

For the players playing now, it’s definitely scary. However, that’s only because there’s still plenty we don’t know. It’s not an insurmountable challenge though. It is possible to defy the odds. If anyone knows that better than most, it’s NFL players. Just ask the 2007 New York Giants.

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