The NFL and CTE


We were paid to give concussions. If we knew that we were killing people, I would have never put on that jersey.” –Keith McCants (NFL Linebacker from 1990-1995)

The Mayo Clinic describes Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (also known as CTE) as a “term used to describe brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head traumas.” It’s a broad concept because so little information has been discovered about it, but that does not mean that it does not exist. The NFL, of all places, should have looked into it years ago because of all the concussions that occur during any regular football season. Concussions during an NFL football game are as common as, well, just about anything you can describe as common. And yet, the NFL didn’t even recognize that CTE was a real thing until March 14th of this year. Until then, they ignored the idea that trauma to the head during football could cause CTE and affect players later in life.

The NFL would come out every so often when the topic of CTE came up. They would dance around it and kind of agree that it was a thing, and also kind of not agree that it was a thing. Things are changing though. It feels as though the NFL used to think that if they recognized CTE as being a side effect to football, they would crumble, that they would have fewer options for players in the future. It felt like they thought if they recognized the validity of CTE, the entire sport would crash and burn. But, that’s not the case. Football is the real American pastime and the least they could do is try and make it safer.

At the most recent State of the NFL press conference, Rodger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, was asked if he would be into the idea of having parents encourage their kids play football. His response was less than great. He stated, “If I had a son, I’d love to have him play the game of football because of the values you get. There is risk in life. There is risk in sitting on the couch.” By comparing the risks to football to the risks of not being an athlete, Goodell was not only ignoring the consequences of playing football, but he was essentially saying that not playing football could be more of a risk to a kid’s future as a functioning adult.

For the record, Rodger Goodell is not the most loved person in the NFL. During the draft, he gets booed at every time he goes on stage. He’s bad at sticking to his word and doesn’t like the responsibility that comes with being commissioner. He wants glory, and therefore he is inconsistent. When it comes time to deal with the realities of being the highest rank in the NFL corporate office, he just doesn’t. He wants to be liked and he wants to be right. Admitting that there is a problem with protecting players from the realities of CTE is the exact opposite of what he wants to be dealing with.

Outside of the NFL corporate office, there are plenty of players who believe in the realities of CTE and want something to change. Troy Aikman, quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys from 1989-2000, has spoken out on how it’s a concerning thing to think about. He stated, “I do not have a son. If I had a son, I wouldn’t necessarily discourage him from playing football, but I don’t know that I would encourage him to play either.” Tracy Scroggins recently filed a lawsuit against the NFL for CTE like-damages that occurred while he played as a defensive end for Detroit. Aaron Rodgers has stated before that he has had to take things into his own hands. He once stated, “I know the risk that I take when I step on the field. I’m risking future health and future mental health. I understand that, future physical health.” Players shouldn’t have to take on the burden of CTE on their own. The NFL makes so much money. They can do so much better in protecting their players with all the resources they have right at their fingertips.

There is a problem, but players who are passionate enough even when recognizing the risk did not and have not stopped playing. A few have and more power to them. That number though is so small compared to those who have stuck around. So instead of being worried about what would happen to football if they acknowledged the problem, the NFL should focus more on what they can do to protect and help their players. They owe them that much for all of the money those men bring in for them.

Disclaimer: I am a football fan. It might not seem like it right now, but I am. My concern for CTE is not from a place of hatred for football. I’m a die-hard Green Bay Packers fan. That being said, before I found the Packers, I hated football. I thought it was just a bunch of meat-heads who wanted to hit each other as an unhealthy way of dealing with their testosterone. I learned, though, that that’s not what it’s about. Football is about teamwork– about bringing communities together. It’s about fun and being competitive.

I just want football to be as safe as it possibly can be, and I do not think I’m the only fan who wants that. That means there will need to be a change. What was safe twenty years ago should not be considered safe now. Technology is constantly changing. The medical field is constantly changing. Accepting that fact should not be such a big deal.

Beyond just the NFL, CTE is a problem because of continuous trauma to the head. Therefore, if someone has been playing football since they were a kid, I promise you that they are going to have problems if they continue into college. And then of course there will be problems if they go into the NFL. So as much as I have criticized the NFL for this, the problem doesn’t start there.
Mike Golic of ESPN’s show, Mike & Mike, has talked about the importance of proper tackling form. Understanding how to take a hit is also just as important as understanding how to hit. He believes it starts at the youth level. And don’t get me wrong, that’s a great way to look at it. We just have to be realistic about it as well. He has come out and stated that when it comes to CTE risk in the future, “kids are learning to hit the right way. The next generation of our players are going to tackle better and have better fundamentals and have better technique.” Here’s the thing though… it can still be better. Being better than what was, is not that much of a stretch. Going from almost no recognition of CTE and concussion safety to actual recognition of it is wonderful! But, it’s not where it should end.

This is where technology comes in. As of right now, there is no tackling allowed during football practices at any of the Ivy League schools in order to limit the amount of concussions. Concussions are not just happening during games. Concussions happen during practices, too. So instead, the schools are using what is called a “mobile virtual player”. It is essentially a dummy that can be moved by a remote control. In an interview done by the New York Times, Buddy Teevens, Dartmouth’s head football coach, defended the practice that he started. He said that, “at this stage in their careers, these guys know how to hit and take a hit” and has more interest for the health of his players by limiting hits during practice. That being said, there is a problem with this, too. That means a college player is expected to have taken bad hits over and over again already before making it to the college level.

There are now helmets out there that can track how big the impact of a hit to the head actually is. With technology, there can actually be inserts inside helmets that can show how large a hit was and the possible effect it can have afterwards. Big hits are kind of like when you get a bruise and don’t realize it, and then you notice it a day later… then it hurts once you notice it. This type of change in helmets wants to give you the immediate feedback that someone might not realize is there during the rush of a game. Again, though, we can do better. We should be able to figure out a type of helmet that reduces the impact of a hit, not just show the feedback of a hit.

CTE is not just something to shrug off. It needs to be taken seriously. There needs to be more studies done. There needs to be an acceptance that this is reality in order for something to be done about it. As things stand, it has become better. Is it anywhere where it needs to be though? No. The NFL has to take responsibility and they have to take it seriously. Technology changes so quickly that this problem can be helped. It’s complicated, there’s no doubt about that. With proper handling of the issue though, it can be better. 

We as a society put football on a pedestal. Kids will not stop playing. Adults will not stop playing. So, it is only fair to want it to be safe. Yes, it is a contact sport. Yes, there will always be a risk within the sport. That being said, players should not have to compromise their post-retirement life in order to play. The risk can be lower. The focus on CTE studies should be greater. And technology in helmets should be farther along.

What’s going on now should have been the reality in the 90’s. Now it’s time to play a game of catch-up. Now it’s time to protect the lives of the players.

Photo Credit: AP | Mel Evans

Latest posts by Veronica Vivona (see all)