New details released Friday by researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University reveal that 96 percent of NFL players the group has examined showed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease impacting the brain.
The researchers shared the information, which listed 87 out of 91 former NFL players that were tested as having CTE, with PBS' Frontline television series, the show's Jason M. Breslow reported. When counting all football players who were tested, the rate of CTE was 79 percent.
The latter percentage comes from a total of 165 examinations that looked at players who played football anywhere from high school to the NFL. Dr. Ann McKee, who runs the lab, told PBS the results are consistent with past findings and should be taken seriously.
"People think that we're blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that we're sensationalizing it," McKee said. "My response is that where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players."
The research also showed 40 percent of those who tested positive for the disease played on the offensive or defensive line. It's raised further concerns about the long-term effects of repeated, smaller hits to the head as compared to the bigger, single hits that often knock a player out of a game with a concussion.
The researchers did exercise some caution with the findings, as PBS noted. The only guaranteed way to identify the disease comes after a player's death. There's currently no test a living player can undergo to reach a definitive conclusion about the presence of CTE.
In turn, players who donated their brains to the researchers often believed they were dealing with a problem before they passed away, which could affect the numbers. Still, McKee explained to Frontline that it's a serious concern and the effort to bring it to the forefront has obstacles.
"People want to make this just Alzheimer's disease or aging and not really a disease," McKee said. "I think there's fewer of those people, but that's still one of our major hurdles."
An NFL spokesperson released a statement to PBS in response to the latest report:
We are dedicated to making football safer and continue to take steps to protect players, including rule changes, advanced sideline technology, and expanded medical resources. We continue to make significant investments in independent research through our gifts to Boston University, the [National Institutes of Health] and other efforts to accelerate the science and understanding of these issues.
The league released figures in its 2015 Health and Safety Report that stated reported concussions for its teams dropped 35 percent between the 2012 and 2014 seasons. The NFL has also instituted a Concussion Management Protocol all teams must follow.
In April, the league received final approval on a settlement with former players to help cover the costs for medical conditions related to head trauma. Its estimated cost could reach $1 billion over the next 65 years.
The question the NFL must still answer is whether there's any way to continue making the game safer, especially for players battling in the trenches every snap. The latest numbers suggest those seemingly minor collisions may deserve additional attention moving forward.