Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a rare degenerative disease that can cause symptoms of Alzheimer's or dementia in people who are literally decades younger than typical patients of those diseases. Their brain cells are damaged and, over many years, die. Unlike the kind of single strong blow to the head that results in a concussion, CTE is caused by damage from the cumulative effects of repeated blows to the head.
Research shows that some football players take hits to the head that are similar to being in medium-speed car accident without wearing a seatbelt. These hits aren't unusual; they're typical during games and practices, and players routinely don't even miss a single play from them. Some college and high school players will take as many as 1,000 severe blows to the head every season during games and practices. This means a player could theoretically develop CTE without ever even suffering a concussion.
The danger of CTE goes right to the heart of football. "If 10 years of exposure to the sport will dramatically increase your risk, we can't let football be destroying people's lives," Nowinski says.
A recent New Yorker article on CTE and football by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell bluntly asks, "How different are dogfighting and football?"
The question of football safety was asked in a recent Congressional hearing. At that hearing—in which National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell pledged his support in creating public service announcements about concussion safety—the Sports Legacy Institute unveiled its ambitious "10-Point Plan to Save Football."
The plan is comprehensive—covering everything from educating coaches, to protective equipment, to curbing glorification of dangerous plays by TV announcers. And it isn't limited to the highest level of the sport. In fact, Nowinski says the sport must change at its very earliest levels. "Kids are much more at risk for brain damage from sports because a concussion is much more damaging to the developing brain," he says. "And biomechanically, kids are in worse position because they have these small, weak necks and their head are much bigger relative to their size. A strong neck reduces force going to a brain. Kids don't have that way to defend themselves."
Besides education and diagnosis of head injuries and medical staff on the sidelines, one of the plan's most significant calls is for changes in practice. "You can reduce trauma by 75 percent tomorrow if you reduce hitting in practice," Nowinski says.
The good news is this kind of groundbreaking shift in the sport has a precedent. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt called a summit of college football coaches to reform rules to reduce violent collisions. Is football now facing a similar safety crisis? "Without immediate change in how the game is practiced and mandatory brain trauma education for coaches, among others changes," Nowinski says, "I would hesitate to let my son play football."
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