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Sports and Brain Injuries
Sports and Brain Injuries

  • Playing contact football before age 12 may cause brain changes throughout life.  Researchers have found that playing tackle football under the age of 12 exposes children to repetitive head impacts. Those hits may double their risk of developing behavioral problems and triple their chances of suffering depression later in life. 

    The study says the consequences include behavioral and mood impairments such as depression and apathy.  The brain damage results from repetitive head impacts, regardless of whether the blows cause concussions.  The outcomes were similar regardless of how many years the participants played football or the number of concussions they reported.  They also found that the younger the players were when they began playing tackle football, the greater risk they faced on developing problems later in life. 

    A previous study in 2015 focused only on former NFL players.  In that study, those who began participating in tackle football before age 12 were found to have worse memory and mental flexibility than the who waited to play until they were at least 12. 

    Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon who teaches at BU and helped author the new BU study, has long cautioned against children playing football before age 14, because their brains are not fully developed. 

    BU professor Robert Stern said, “I’m at a point where I feel comfortable saying that, based on logic and common sense and the growing totality of the research, I don’t think kids should be playing tackle football.” 

    (Source:  “Study links youth football to greater risk of later health problems,” by Bob Hohler, Boston Globe, September 19, 2017; Boston University’s  Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center; study published in Nature magazine’s journal on September 19, 2017, Translational Psychiatry, Boston Globe) 

  • Young athletes should not just try to shake off a head injury.   
Athletes feel pressured not to disclose potential concussions; however, in 2009, 250,000 athletes ages 19 and under were treated for concussion. 

The highest rates of concussions for men are 1) football, 2) ice hockey, 3) Lacrosse, 4) wrestling, and 5) soccer.   Among the highest rates for women are soccer and college ice hockey.  

There is no evidence that soccer headgear reduces the risk of concussion.  The same is true in football.  Helmet manufacturers already post warnings like, "Contact in football may result in concussion/brain injury which no helmet can prevent."  

"Helmets were originally created to reduce the number of skull fractures and intracranial bleeding and oral and eye injuries; however, they do not necessarily reduce the forces that lead to concussion injuries,"  according to Dr. Neha Raukar, MD of Brown University School of Medicine. 

Athletes with a concussion are at risk for a more severe one the next time around.  10-20% of patients have symptoms lasting more than 2 weeks   Returning to play before full recovery increases the risk of more severe brain injury.

"Every person recovers at a different rate
, so the approach to a patient with a concussion has to be individualized," said Dr. Raukar.   (Sports-Related Concussions in Youth, CBS News, October 30, 2013)
  • “Most people don’t want to admit that our most beloved, popular sport can (cause players to) end up with brain damage.  It’s a hard…but true message.”  (Dr. Julian Bailes, M.D., Team Neurosurgeon, Steelers, 1988-97)
“I intuitively knew the damage was occurring every week, and that this was not just a football issue.  If it was happening to football players in the pro’s, it was happening in college, it was happening in high school, it was happening to every player in every collision sport.  It was a huge societal issue.”  (Leigh Steinberg, Sports agent)

“If 10% of the mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.”  (stated by an NFL doctor in a private meeting with Dr. Bennett Omalu, M.D., M.P.H.)

Children can develop brain injuries as a result of playing football.  No one under 14 should play tackle football, because the damage to children is even greater.”  (Dr. Robert Cantu, M.D., Neurosurgeon, BU CTE Center)  The NFL now promotes a youth football safety initiative, a Heads Up program. 

The thing parents want their kids to do is to succeed in life and be all they can be, and brain concussions will prevent that.  Ann reported that 45 of 46 brains of former NFL players had CTE.    (Dr. Ann McKee, M.D.) 

Physical injuries come with the territory, as well as injuries that cannot be seen.  Some doctors, including a NFL doctor, have concluded that football head injuries can cause dementia or permanent disabling injury to the brain. 

“Repetitive brain trauma starts a cascade of events in the brain…and starts destroying the integrity of the brain cells, in what is called CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).  This impacts the way the brain is working, erupting in issues around memory, agitation and anger.” (Dr. Bennett Omalu, M.D., M.P.H., published in the Neurosurgery journal) 

“In football, one has to expect that in almost every play of every game of every practice they are going to be hitting their heads against each other.  That is the nature of the game.  Those things seem to happen around 1,000 - 1,500 times a year.  Each time that happens it is around 20g or more - that is the equivalent of driving a car at 35 mph into a brick wall 1,000 - 1,500 times per year.”  (Robert Stern, Ph.D., Neuropsychologist, Boston University)

The NFL markets violence.  Their film reduction celebrates the violence and the spectacle.  In pro-football games, the biggest cheers are for the touchdown; but the second biggest cheers are for a nasty hit. 

“The actual logo of Monday night football shows 2 helmets hitting together.”  In the darker side of football “I watched athletes play with collapsed lungs, fight with doctors to get into the game, deceive coaches when they were injured…the issue is so critical.”  (Leigh Steinberg, Sports agent_

Dr. Omalu knew that playing football could cause permanent brain damage, but his work was attacked by the NFL league officials.  The NFL long denied the dangerous and lasting consequences of concussions, contrary to science and medicine; and saying that players could play immediately after receiving a concussion, putting money ahead of players.   The NFL can earn almost $8 billion in one year.  (Superbowl 43).  Money has come before safety. 

The NFL League finally admitted after years of controversy that “Football can cause brain disease.”  Repetitive trauma to the head in football can cause a permanent disabling injury to the brain.(2000)  The NFL’s retirement board has linked playing with football and dementia. 

In September 2006, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took over.  In 2007, the NFL doctors and the Commissioner listened to outside scientists, but excluded Dr. Omalu and his research on CTE.  Dr. Julian Bailes delivered Dr. Omalu’s research and findings, and once again the NFL rejected his findings.  Although a growing body of science suggested there was a link between football and brain disease among the players, the NFL continued to deny the dangers of playing football. 

In 2008, Dr. Ann McKee, M.D., Neuropathologist and a leading Alzheimer’s researcher, looked at the brains of former NFL players and declared brain injury a crisis.  Six of six former NFL players’ brains had CTE.  (Dr. Ann McKee, BU CTE Center)

Brain trauma can lead to restlessness, irritability, discontent, drug addiction, depression, violence, suicide, and severe disabilities.  Chris Nowinski reported that he had violent nightmares and headaches for years after brain trauma from football and professional wrestling.  (Chris Nowinski, author, book/film Head Games)

An internal NFL research document was leaked to a reporter.  The report was titled “National Football League Player Care Foundation - Study of Retired NFL Players.”  This scientific study of former players was commissioned by the NFL itself.  On page 32, they had asked players if they had been diagnosed by a physician as having Alzheimer’s, Dementia, or any other memory-related diseases.  Former NFL players seemed to have memory-related disorders at a much higher rate than people in the regular community.  It showed that the prevalence of brain disorders was far higher among football players than the NFL anticipated; however, the NFL denied their own study results.  (“Dementia Risk Seen in Players in N.F.L. Study,” by Alan Schwarz)

Eventually, women who were the wives, widows, sisters, mothers and daughters of NFL players, along with Dr. McKee, forced this issue into American consciousness.  In 2009, Congress called Commissioner Goodell to answer why the NFL has failed to act on scientific research for over 10 years, by denying the results.  As a result, the NFL issued a series of new policies designed to protect players from concussions.  An NFL spokesman also admitted that it is clear that there are long-term consequences to concussions in NFL players.  (“N.F.L. Acknowledges Long-Term Concussion Effects,” The New York Times, 2009)

In 2010, “…an advanced case of CTE was found in the brain of a 21-year old football player who had never had a diagnosed concussion; however, he might have gotten CTE from the everyday sub-concussive hits that do not have symptoms of a concussion - meaning, that just playing the game can be dangerous.”  Dr. Ann McKee, M.D.

“The little mini-concussions are just as dangerous as the big hits," said Harry Carson.  You may sustain a dozen mini-hits during the course of a game.”

Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers, said that these nefarious mini-brain injuries are ones you never feel until it is too late.  That is the thing that is most alarming to me.”  An 18-year old high school senior who played multiple sports, also had CTE.

On February 3, 2013, after nearly two decades of research since 1994, NFL Commissioner Goodell still refused to admit there is a link between football head injuries and brain damage called CTE.  (CBS News)

The NFL League was finally sued by 4,500 retired players, claiming the NFL had fraudulently concealed the danger to their brains.  The players were requesting around $2 billion.  The NFL knew the little secret, that there was a very severe hazard present in professional football, and withheld it from the players.  The NFL settled out of court to prevent testimonies of doctors, trainers, neuropsychologists, owners and ex-commissioners who would have to testify under oath as to what they knew and when.  Those testimonies that would have incriminated the League and exposed their guilt; therefore, in August 2013 the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to resolve the law suit. 

“League of Denial:  The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” Frontline, PBS, KSPS TV, http://www.pbs.org/frontline, October 8, 2013.

  • 1.23 million children between the ages of 6-12 played tackle football in 2015.  (Sports & Fitness Industry Association) 
  • In spite of the rule changes to reduce the risk of concussions, the NFL reported a 58% incraese in concussions from 115 during the 2014 season to 182 during the 2015 season.  Dr. Robert Cantu, M.D., Neurosurgeon, said that, "90 to 100% of the professional players on the field on Super Bowl Sunday will suffer from CTE.  By the time you reach the professional level, the players have received hundreds or even thousands of blows to their heads."   (NFL Concussions, CBS Evening News, February 2, 2016)

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Additional Resources
  • "Concussion," by Jeanne Marie Laskas.  Concussion is the riveting, unlikely story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who made one of the most significant medical discoveries of the twenty-first century, a discovery that challenges the existence of America’s favorite sport and puts Omalu in the crosshairs of football’s most powerful corporation: the NFL.