Studies have found that every year of playing football increases the risk of developing CTE by 30 percent

Ken Reed Nothing seems to slow the popularity of football, even the growing mound of research about how dangerous the game is to the human brain.

Neurologist Adina Wise has written a compelling article, Why CTE …, which explores the intriguing contradiction of football’s increasing popularity despite a broader awareness of the significant connection between playing the sport and the severe condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

First, the evidence regarding CTE:

A breakthrough study by researchers from institutions across the globe found the risks of developing CTE for athletes playing contact sports relative to non-athletes – or athletes playing non-contact sports – was extremely high. The authors discovered that the brain banks of the U.S. Department of Defense, Boston University-U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and Mayo Clinic have all published independent studies on distinct populations showing contact sport athletes were at least 68 times more likely to develop CTE than those who did not play contact sports. 68 times!

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Photo supplied by Tahir Osman

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This incredible strength of association, combined with robust evidence in nine related benchmarks, is conclusive evidence of causation, according to the study’s authors.

“This innovative analysis gives us the highest scientific confidence that repeated head impacts cause CTE,” said study lead author Dr. Chris Nowinski, Concussion Legacy Foundation CEO. “Sport governing bodies should acknowledge that head impacts cause CTE and they should not mislead the public on CTE causation while athletes die, and families are destroyed, by this terrible disease.”

In another study, conducted by researchers at Boston University’s CTE Center and reported in Annals of Neurology, for every year of absorbing the pounding and repeated head collisions that come with playing football, a person’s risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) increases by 30 percent. And for every 2.6 years of play, the risk of developing CTE doubles.

The common perception is that only old football players are at risk of CTE. For sure, the symptoms of CTE begin to show up in an athlete’s later years for most former football players. But CTE can also negatively impact those under 30 years old, including teenagers.

Take a look at this powerful and emotional article about young athletes who committed suicide and later were discovered to have CTE. It is heartbreaking. (Warning: the article includes video clips from an 18-year-old former football player who had advanced CTE and committed suicide shortly after making the video. He complained about having endured terrible depression – a common symptom of CTE – he attributed to football-based brain injuries).

Given all the scary research on football and CTE, why is football more popular than ever, at least from a fan perspective?

Nadina Wise suspects it’s “good old cognitive dissonance” at work. She writes: “Cognitive neuroscience research has shown, repeatedly, that when we choose between two ideas or actions that are at odds with each other (i.e., “I wish to mitigate suffering secondary to neurological illness” and “Go Steelers!”), we actually change our preferences simply by making the choice a process which we then feel compelled to justify. For example, if we keep watching or playing football, our brains conclude that perhaps the research on contact sports and CTE is inconclusive?”

There appears to be a clear difference between football fandom and football participation trends. While football viewership of college and pro ball is up, 68.4 percent of the respondents in a survey of neurologists indicated that they would not support a young male relative playing football. Moreover, a recent study by the Washington Post found high school football participation is actually down 17 percent from 2006.

It must be noted that a remaining mystery when it comes to CTE is why some individuals who suffer repeated blows to the head go on to develop CTE while others don’t. Some researchers suspect a genetic variant might be the reason some players are more susceptible to contracting CTE than others. However, more research is needed to answer this question.

Ken Reed is the sports policy director for League of Fans, a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader. Reed’s work involves advocating for what he sees as positive changes in the sports world, focusing on issues like safety, equity, ethics and fair play. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.

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