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Are Football Players at a Higher Risk of Brain Damage? - Sport Scope Video

Are Football Players at a Higher Risk of Brain Damage?

Last week the Sport Scope Blog covered a recent study by JAMA Neurology, which suggested that high school football doesn’t result in cognitive impairment later in life. As if in an ironic response, JAMA just released a new study that seems to conflict with last week’s results.

This new study has its attention on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a progressive degenerative disease caused by repetitive brain trauma, in deceased football players, specifically those who played for the NFL. The results, at first glance, are quite startling. 110 out of the 111 deceased NFL players were diagnosed with CTE. That’s 99%!

What might be equally troubling, though, is the evidence of CTE in deceased players who played high school and college football. As pointed out by Forbes, “Of the 202 deceased players whose brains were examined in the study, two played football before high school, 14 played only in high school and 53 played through college. Neither of the pre-high school players had evidence of CTE, but 21% of the high school players did, and 91% of the college players did.”


This seems to strongly suggest that the longer you play football, the more prone you are to acquire CTE. However, as was the case with last week’s study, there are major limitations present here that should at least pause our judgment until said limitations are accounted for. Here’s what we mean:

All of the athletes’ brains were donated by a bank that only accepts brains from individuals who were exposed to repetitive head trauma, including football players at any level. Once again as Forbes rightly points out, this means that “these brains are not a random sample and cannot be used to represent all the brains of football players.”

Not to mention that only 53 college players and only 14 high school players cannot possibly come even close to representing the total population of football players at these levels. Tyler C. Duffield, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychology fellow at Oregon Health & Science University’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital says, “Thus, it is difficult to make any definitive conclusions, generalizations or extrapolations to collegiate and high school populations that proportionally far exceed any NFL player sample.”

brain damage in football players


However, before we get our hopes up it is necessary to point out that over half of the college players who did have CTE displayed severe symptoms. And while the remaining college population and all of the high school football players had mild CTE, it’s worth noting that even the mild cases can be devastating. Also most players with mild cases typically worsen over time and are known to suffer from a variety of brain issues.

CTE has become a major focus in the sport of American football (especially the NFL) due to attention-grabbing studies like this one, as well as provocative documentaries and even feature films like Concussion. The resulting symptoms from this disease are heartbreaking. Depression, anxiety, and suicide are common among patients with CTE.

With all of that said, this is a sensitive issue to be sure. Football is a wonderful game that we all love – there’s no doubt about that - but the safety of players is important too. These results absolutely do not imply that all or even most of high school and college football players will incur brain damage from playing the game. But we also shouldn’t pretend like the potential for this problem is completely nonexistent.

What are your thoughts on this study? How should we handle the dangers of playing football in high school and college? Share your thoughts with us on our Facebook Page.


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Posted on July 28, 2017 at 11:30 AM