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Concussions and CTE in the NFL: The League’s Head Problem

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Concussions and CTE in the NFL; The League’s Head Problem

Despite the National Football League’s best efforts; the link between head trauma and the NFL lingers under the national spotlight. Luke Kuechly, one of the NFL’s brightest stars, has unenthusiastically become the face of the current debate raging across the country, which has parents questioning whether or not they should allow their children to play the game at all. After returning to practice last Wednesday, Kuechly waited impatiently to learn whether the NFL’s current concussion protocol would let him suit up this past Sunday. But the answer was a resounding NO.

The three-time pro-bowl linebacker has now been sidelined for the Carolina Panthers since November 17th, when he suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit, which left him hyperventilating and visibly distraught with tears running down his face as millions watched on national television. League officials, fans, and parents were equally petrified, but for different reasons. This is Kuechly’s sixth missed game in the past two seasons because of a diagnosed concussion, and he is only 25-years old. Furthermore, concussions rose 58% from the 2014 to 2015 season, so this will not be the last time we see a heartbreaking concussion injury on the gridiron.

Luke Kuechly Concussion, NFL Head Injuries, NFL CTE Cases, NFL Concussions, American Football Injuries, Brain Injuries, NFL Concussion ProtocolLast year the conversation reached its pinnacle when Will Smith played Dr. Bennet Omalu in the major motion picture, Concussion. It was Omalu who first identified chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in the brain of Mike Webster, who took his own life at the age of 50 in 2002. Since then, Boston University (BU), the leading brain trauma research institute in the United States, has identified CTE in 87 of the 91 former NFL players that they have tested thus far.

Meanwhile, Kuechly’s team, the Carolina Panthers, lead the NFL this season with six players placed into the concussion protocol, including Kuechly and their star quarterback, Cam Newtown. Many observers have been applauding the NFL’s protocol measures, but some detractors claim it’s “too little, too late,” while others, like the president-elect, Donald Trump, believe that “these new, and very much softer, NFL rules,” are ruining the integrity of the game. Jerry Jones has gone as far as to say that it is “absurd” to think that the current data proves CTE is linked to football (despite the 96% occurrence rate in BU’s research).

Judge Approves Multi Million Dollar NFL Head Trauma Settlement

Regardless of where Jones and Trump stand on the issue, all of the data shows a connection, and the debate has grown into a state of emergency as the number of deaths linked to CTE and head trauma sustained while playing football have begun to accumulate. In April 2015, a judge approved the settlement between thousands of former players and the NFL over claims that the league concealed the dangers of head trauma related injuries. Payments of up to $5 million were promised to players with certain neurological maladies.

After more than a year of delays, those payments, expected to reach more than 20,000 former NFL players over the next 65 years, will now be distributed after the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of some players who said the deal does not adequately cover everyone. The settlement is estimated to cost the NFL more than $1 billion. In some of the most extreme cases young players who went onto develop ALS will receive $5 million. Others who contracted severe dementia early in life will receive $3 million, while those who suffered from a less severe form of dementia later in life may get as little as $25,000. All retirees that do not currently show any signs of brain trauma will be offered screenings and treatment if necessary.

Kevin Turner Settlement

Kevin Turner, a plaintiff in the suit against the NFL, did not live long enough to see the $5 million now due to his family after he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2010. When Turner died in March 2016, he willed his brain to BU for research. Last month, Dr. Ann McKee, a professor of Neurology & Pathology at BU’s CTE Center announced his results.Luke Kuechly Concussion, NFL Head Injuries, NFL CTE Cases, NFL Concussions, American Football Injuries, Brain Injuries, NFL Concussion Protocol

The 46-year old, Turner, died from a disease that developed from the advanced CTE found in his brain. Turner did not suffer many concussions in his career, instead he took on smaller, less severe hits. But those “smaller” hits came on a relentless basis during his three years as a running back for the New England Patriots, five years with the Philadelphia Eagles, and four years at the University of Alabama.

“We see a direct correlation between the length of the playing career and the development of CTE,” McKee said. “Its looking like that – not the concussions, but the duration, the years of playing – is the most significant factor.”

Diagnosing Living CTE Patients in 5 to 10 Years

Robert Stern, the director of clinical research at BU’s CTE center, is now working to diagnose the disease in living patients, not just after death. Stern said that he hopes to have the technology in the “next five to ten years,” which could allow the league to better determine when a player should be kept off the field indefinitely. Critics of the settlement say that it does not go far enough and in many cases being diagnosed with CTE does not mean that an affected player’s family will receive a dollar. In fact, under the deal, some families of players diagnosed with certain brain traumas before April 22, 2015 are slated to receive millions, but if diagnosed after that date they may receive nothing.

In September 2016, the NFL and the owners pledged an additional $100 million to help prevent, diagnose, and treat head injuries in their game. The money is being spent to advance research and engineering applications. Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, is quick to point out that over the past 14 years his league has implemented 42 rules changes to protect their players and that they staff each game with a team of nearly 30 medically trained personnel. But his critics say that the NFL should have been doing more to keep their players safe.

“Rightfully, much of the public discussion is about concussions—how they happen, how they can be prevented and treated and what is known about their long-term impact,” wrote Goodell in a statement. “When it comes to addressing head injuries in our game, I’m not satisfied, and neither are the owners of the NFL’s 32 clubs. We can and will do better.”

NFL Grants Quanterix $800k for Biotech Research

One team of researchers in Massachusetts, that base their work on the science of a professor at Tufts University, may already be doing better. Quanterix, a biotechnology company headquartered in Lexington, MA, has reportedly discovered a reliable way to test for concussions on the sidelines through a simple blood test.

NFL Head Injuries, NFL CTE Cases, NFL Concussions, American Football Injuries, Brain Injuries, NFL Concussion ProtocolThe National Institute of Health believes that this science could help medical professionals identify concussions definitively—eliminating the guessing and human error involved in today’s practices. The NFL has awarded Quanterix $800,000 over the past two years in grants, but they are not a shareholder in the company.

“Everybody at this level makes a choice, and you know what you sign up for,” Luke Kuechly told Peter King last year in an interview after he came back from his 2015 concussion. “I know what I’m doing. I know the risks. I love the game. I’m going to keep playing it.” And as long as fans continue to fill the stands, tune in on Sundays, and maintain football as the most popular professional sport in the United States, athletes will be forced to weigh the risks of potential brain trauma with the lucrative monetary incentives that come from dominating a game first played 147-years ago.

NFL Head Injury Statistics

  • A joint study, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University, showed that of 91 former NFL player’s brains tested for CTE, 87 came back positive for the severe trauma.
  • Dr. Bennet Omalu first identified chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in the brain of Mike Webster, who took his own life at the age of 50 in 2002.
  • A judge approved the settlement between thousands of former players and the NFL over claims that the league concealed the dangers of head trauma related injuries. Payments of up to $5 million were promised.
  • The settlement is estimated to cost the NFL more than $1 billion.
  • Over the past 14 years, the NFL has implemented 42 rules changes to protect their players.
  • The NFL staff’s each game with a team of nearly 30 medically trained personnel
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