Devastating Hits, Suspension and the Story Behind the New NFL Policy: CTE

Gregory JeromeContributor IOctober 19, 2010

Desean Jackson leaving field with concussion.
Desean Jackson leaving field with concussion.Al Bello/Getty Images

Former safety for the New Orleans Saints, Gene Atkins, can't repeat the months of the year in order to a doctor, at the age of 41. 

San Francisco 49ers former lineman, George Viger, has spent the last 20 years using pocket sized notebooks to write down everything he needs to remember for the day.  Otherwise he can't remember a single thing at the age of 51. 

Ralph Wenzel was a lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers and now can't feed himself independently and is living in assisted living.

What do all these former players have in common? 

New medical research suggests they all suffer from a mentally debilitating condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, as a result of incurring concussions and the tens of thousands of sub-concussive hits during their careers in football.

The disease was discovered in football players in 2002 by neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu who performed the autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steeler "Iron" Mike Webster, who had gone insane before his death at 50 years old.  Researchers now believe Webster was not insane as much the victim of CTE.

Dr. Omalu and others then examined the donated brains of eight deceased professional football players and the findings were consistent and clear.

Including the brain of Cincinnati Bengal Chris Henry, every examined brain showed severe deterioration, characteristic of CTE, as evident by high levels of tau proteins which are visible as large brown stains.  Normal brains do not have any of these tau proteins.

The symptoms of CTE are various forms of debilitating brain function impairment, including a catastrophic decrease in memory function similar to Alzheimer's, as well as dementia, impulse control and rage.

Researchers believe the tau proteins are the result of not only the hard-hitting concussions football players receive, but also the tens of thousands of sub-concussive hits they incur throughout their career going back to high school.  Research has ruled out any possibility of steroids or other substance abuses having anything to do with tau protein buildup or CTE.

These tau proteins begin a degenerative process that leads to the complete destruction of brain tissue.  However, this process is not immediate.  It takes years for the degenerative process to play out, so players don't usually begin to experience the effects of the disease until they have finished playing and are retired.

While the National Football League today imposes a new policy aimed at reducing head injury through suspension for "devastating hits" there has been no conversation of CTE, a disease that may potentially affect a large population of pro football players. 

Instead, sports media figures like former football player and ESPN host, Steve Young, frame the NFL's position as trying to prevent " Darryl Stingly-type" collisions.  Stingly was paralyzed by a tackle during a game in 1978.

A paralyzing tackle over 30 years ago is not the reason the NFL is now taking further action to protect the brains of it's players.  In fact, California legislation may have as much to do with new safety policies as much as the humanitarian concerns of the commissioner.

According to The New York Times, about 700 former NFL players are currently pursing legal recourse for football related injuries in the state of California.  Because of the state's workers' compensation laws, anyone who has worked one day in California, has access to it's courts. 

This has opened the legal door to any NFL player who has ever played a visiting game in San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland or San Francisco.  This legal opportunity represents millions of dollars in potential damage to the league if the California courts correlate this new CTE data with working in the NFL, as they are expected to.

While the league is admirable in taking steps today to make the sport safer for the sake of the players and the longevity of the league, until we see ESPN television discussing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the real story isn't being told.

The following short videos from Time, ABC and The New York Times are essential in understanding what is behind the NFL's concern with concussions.