Today is Sunday and if you’re an NFL fan like me you know that we’re already into the full training camp season and closing in on the pre-season games for America’s favorite sport. The National Football League remains the premier American sport and a tremendous tradition in our country. (Sorry, you other sports, but… not sorry.) But if you follow the news surrounding the NFL you probably know that yet another new study was just released which is being widely touted as proof that football is flat-out dangerous and should probably be shunned by decent people. The Washington Post has some of the often repeated details of a medical study looking at the brains of many deceased football players, indicating that a much higher than normal percentage are suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The headline writes itself.
RESEARCHERS WHO studied the donated brains of 111 former National Football League players found that all but one had evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The link between the degenerative brain disease and football already had been well-established, but the findings are nonetheless startling, indicating that CTE is much more common than had been thought. That should spur more — and urgent — action to reduce the risks that football presents to players of all ages.
A study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers from Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System is the largest to date and is the continuation of work started eight years ago. Researchers examined the brains of 202 deceased former football players at all levels. Nearly 88 percent of the brains, 177, had CTE. Most concerning: Three of 14 who had played only high school football had CTE, as did 48 of 53 college players.
The NFL gets a bad rap in the liberal media and it has for years. Most recently it’s been this story about how dangerous it is and the long term medical effects engaging in the sport my have on the players. To be clear, it’s a brutal sport at times and those who go into it should be aware that any such strenuous, bruising activity may have a variety of effects on the body, just as with many other lines of work. But this particular brain study should raise questions which those promoting it owe an answer for.
First of all, there are the numbers. The study, shown above, indicates that 88% of players, including 7% who only played high school ball and most of those who played in college exhibited signs of CTE. Wow. Those are some alarming figures. But you need to read a bit further in the study to find this little detail. (Emphasis added.)
The study, as its lead researcher, neuropathologist Ann McKee, cautioned, has limitations, because the brains studied were mostly donated by families who had been concerned that their loved ones may have had CTE because they had exhibited symptoms or died accidentally or by suicide. That skews the results; this is not a randomized study.
Yes indeed. This is not a randomized study, but if you’re watching the short segments being blasted on CNN and other outlets you won’t find that out on your own very often. Here’s a couple more facts for you. Each season in the current era there are just shy of 1,700 regular roster players in the NFL. There are roughly 115 colleges with NCAA Division I football programs competing each year, with each one carrying a roster of over 100. (That’s another 11,500 players each season.) The number in high school squads isn’t calculated well enough to get a firm figure from what I could find but it’s massive. And that’s each season. This study looked at a little more than 200 players spread out over decades of play and they were almost entirely submitted by families who were concerned about the medical condition, behavior or even suicide of the individuals.
Does that sound random to you? Does it sound as if there are actually 1,496 NFL players (that would be 88% of 1,700) who have CTE?
No. It does not.
But let’s put ourselves in some universe where those figures were real. Presumably, from all the medical experts I see talking about it, the problems are caused by repeated “blows to the head” suffered by players, even if they are very minor blows. I have no doubt that those can add up over time and in some individuals it will lead to problems.
But answer me another question. How many other sports are you NOT talking about? And how many other jobs? Why does the media focus on football almost exclusively? If you’ve ever watched professional boxing (and there’s a lot of it still going on) you’ll see some real traumatic blows to the head and the pros aren’t wearing helmets of any sort. Even in the amateur ranks the head gear doesn’t provide much in the way of relief on that front. Why aren’t you calling for a ban on boxing? Rugby is even worse. Soccer players regularly pass the ball by bouncing it off their heads. Construction workers, even with hard hats, run into structures and bang their heads all the time.
What’s with the fixation on football? Allow me to speculate on the answer. It’s a “redneck” thing which is popular with the “wrong sort of people” who don’t spend their time at the opera or Broadway plays or other proper entertainment for enlightened folk. If there was a way to claim that NASCAR drivers were taking too many blows to the head you’d be hearing about that every day also.
Yes, the NFL is a tough gig. It’s hard on the body. It’s one of the reasons we admire those who excel at the highest levels as gridiron heroes. If you want to continue to make the gear safer, have at it. But don’t try to shut down the sport because you don’t like it unless you’re willing to say that we need to shrink wrap the rest of society to an equal level.