‘I stopped counting my concussions at 15. I wouldn’t say anything, I’d just sniff smelling salts and go back out there” – Andre Waters (Nowinski 2:33). Andre Waters said this in 1994 and twelve years later he took his own life because of a disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Both concussions and CTE go back to the early years of the modern sports era, but only recently have both diseases become international news. Both CTE and concussions are serious brain diseases that can lead to severe medical consequences.
During the past few years, there have been different studies into the causes and effects of both diseases and how they relate to one another. Along with the recent studies on the matter, there have been multiple stories of former athletes that have died very young from CTE. These stories have been highlighted by the documentary “Concussions” and famous NFL player suicides from CTE. As more information and personal stories on concussions and CTE becoming common knowledge medical professionals, parents, athletes and professional leagues are divided on the issue.
So far the actions taken by professional leagues have been controversial and unproductive. For there to be action in preventing concussions and CTE, something will need to be done by the leaders of each sport. At the moment little change has been done to stop these serious brain diseases. However, if professional sports like football, soccer, wrestling and etc. want to keep earning revenue, then they will have to change. While changes are inevitable, they will be hard to predict as a battle between both sides is coming.
Since the beginning of the modern era of sports, athletes have been taking hard collisions to the head. These hits to the head would often lead to concussions and sometimes CTE. Both disease have been around for a long time, however CTE used to be known as ‘‘punch-drunk syndrome,’’ which “was identified in boxers many decades ago” (Mccallister et al. 313). Now “punch-drunk syndrome” is not only found in boxers, but has recently been found in athletes who have experienced repetitive head trauma. Ever since the early 2000’s, “Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been the focus of extensive attention in recent years. In fact, there have been more than 10 times as many news articles as confirmed cases (Brody 285).”
With the recent news stories and effort from outside groups; youth, amateur and professional sports will experience changes in a variety of ways. Recently, some sports have undergone changes to their rules to protect player safety. For example, “amateur hockey has eliminated checking for youth under 17 years old in Canada” (Hudson et al. 4). Other recent examples are changes that are happening in the National Football League, college football, amateur leagues and other sports. These leagues have recently enacted new rules that penalize players for hitting defenseless players and for colliding head to head with another player. However, in many cases this is not enough, as the threat of brain injuries continues to be a serious problem.
Since concussions and CTE have been in the news recently this has caused some sports leagues to implement changes to prevent both diseases, but many might wonder what is the problem? The issue with both concussions and CTE is that they are diseases or injuries to the head that negatively affect the brain. For instance, CTE or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a progressive degenerative brain disease while concussions are severe impacts to the head. Both the disease and injury can cause severe problems for the brain.
Along with the surge in news on concussions and CTE, there has been a similar increase in the number of studies into the causes of both diseases. For example, Chris Nowinski started the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which is a brain bank that studies former athletes brains after their death. Nowinski has been a vital part in collecting brains for the study as “over 2,500 athletes have signed up (Nowinski 8:12).” His research with Boston University and other research studies have helped, many different people understand more about CTE and how it relates to concussions.
During these studies researchers have found the causation for both diseases is often very similar with minor differences. For instance, concussions are caused by hard hits to the head, which can in some cases allow for a concussed person to become unconscious momentarily. Severe impacts to the head such as concussions each year affect many different people. For example, experts believe that “sports concussions range from 1.6 million to 3.8 million players, with half of these unreported” (Hudson et al. 1). The estimated one to four million sports concussions each year does not include non-sports related concussions which may be even a larger number. For instance in my interview of a nurse, Karla Berhold stated that “most concussions were not sports related” (Berhold). She then went onto list that most concussions result from car accidents, crimes and falls.
While Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE can be caused by hard hits to the head like concussions, it is always caused by repetitive collisions to the head. These repetitive collisons to the head can range between soft and hard hits to the head as any sustained impact to the head can cause damage. In addition, David L. Brody MD, stated that “to date, CTE has been found exclusively in persons with a history of more than 1 head injury, although not all have been diagnosed with concussions” (Brody 285). Although the statement made by Brody is true in some regards, CTE can still found in people that suffered concussions. For instance, many former athletes who were diagnosed with CTE also had a history of concussions. Only a select number of former athletes were not found to have had a concussion during their lifetime. Overall, both diseases are caused by severe and/or repetitive impacts to the skull.
The effects of both diseases relate in large part to the severity of the injuries that were sustained. Concussions and CTE are both induced by head impacts which causes the short term symptoms to be very similar. The two diseases “short term effects include headache, nauseas, memory loss, dizziness, delayed mental processing” (Berhold).
She continued by stating that “CTE and concussion symptoms are similar in the short term” (Berhold). However, the long term effects vary slightly, CTE can be more medically severe than concussions. Both disease are deadly, especially CTE as the only way to diagnose CTE is after the person has died. While, concussions in severe cases can cause people to die, the fatality rate for CTE is more significant. For concussions to cause a person to die, the impact to the head would have to be severe enough to cut off blood flow or allow for the brain to bleed to death. Other symptoms that are similar for both diseases include sleep disorders, depression, difficulty to concentrate, mood swings, sensitivity to stimulation and a variety of other symptoms. Many of these long term effects of concussions can end up causing CTE in a person’s brain. However, there is a higher chance for those with CTE to be affected by the long term symptoms. For example, there are many former National Football League players that had these long term effects of concussions and repetitive head impacts before they died of CTE. In case of Andre Waters, “he decided to put a gun to his head” (Nowinski 2:33). Waters, after playing in the National Football League decided to commit suicide, along with many other former players who were struggling with mental problems such as depression, dementia and suicidal thoughts which were believed to be caused by CTE. Overall, “CTE has more severe and long lasting consequences (Berhold).”
However, others still believe that “little is known about even the short-term effects of multiple concussions or repetitive head impact exposure in athletes” (McAllister et al. 314). McAllister and his colleagues believe that the effects of both diseases are still unknown as most studies into the symptoms relate to helmeted sports. While, McAllister statement is true in a way, there are still studies into the effects of concussions in non-helmet sports. For example, in soccer there have been many different players from every position experience concussion like symptoms. Some soccer players as well as basketball players have had to wear protective helmets during games and even be held out of games because of concussions. There is plenty of knowledge into the effects of concussions in helmet and non-helmet sports.
In the majority of studies done on CTE and concussions, there are a variety of stories of former athletes and non-athletes that have suffered from CTE as well as concussions. One such story is the death of Michael Beck who was twenty-five when he died due to the effects of CTE (Hudson et al. 5). He started playing football at the young age of 6 and at the very young age of 8 years old he was diagnosed with a concussion. Also, during his years of playing college football he reportedly experienced some of the long term symptoms of CTE in dizziness and blurry vision.
By the time of his death, Beck experienced 10 confirmed concussions, which would end up leading to his early death. Michael Beck is one of the youngest people to have died from CTE since it has been intensively studied over the past decade. His story is one of tragedy at such a young age. The death of Beck shows just how fast and degenerative CTE can affect someone’s brain. His death also sheds light on how CTE affects young athletes as the disease started degrading Becks’ brain from an early age. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy can start to develop after just one concussion or hit to the head.
The system for preventing concussions often fails for many players, however the system failed miserably for Michael Beck. Beck is just one example of many former athletes from across sports that have died from symptoms of concussions and CTE. For instance, famous football players such as Mike Webster, Junior Seau, Ken Stabler and etc. have all died from CTE. Webster, Seau and Stabler were all hall of fame players who died from CTE. In every sport, no matter the position there is a chance that an athlete can die from CTE. In football, players who rarely get tackled such as the punter and kicker have still be found to have CTE (Ward et al.).
In addition to all the new studies that have recently surfaced about concussions and CTE, there is one big common factor in that the studies mainly revolve around male athletes. So far most of the studies into concussion have been done in football with a few other studies that focus on other sports. However, these studies that were done on sports other than football, were still mainly focused on male athletes. This is evident when Dr.Hudson and Dr.Spradley state that the “future direction in concussion research should include women athletes, a group completely ignored in the current controversy over concussions” (Hudson et al. 6). They later state that this “probably violates Title IX” (Hudson et al. 6). Much of the recent information on concussions and CTE is based on male athletes. Female and male brains work and run differently in a variety of ways. For researchers to not study the brains of female athletes discriminates against the athletes and in turn makes it harder for them to find a cure. For us as a society to prevent concussions and CTE, we must look at all the available data and at all the different options that are on the table.
“Experts agree that the most effective way to prevent CTE is probably to reduce or eliminate repetitive head impacts (Brody 285).” The statement made by David L. Brody rings true for many athletes and their respective sports. The best way to prevent CTE would be to eliminate any kind of impact to the head. However, in today’s world that is not possible, the next method in preventing concussions would be to try and reduce them as Brody suggests. But, how could we as a society reduce the risk of impacts to the head. The first solution that comes to mind would be to better protect the area around a player’s head. Many sports are trying to do just that by penalizing players for tackling or hitting near the head region.
So far, this strategy has helped to reduce head injuries, but still has yet to eliminate them all together. In the near future there will need to be more actions by the leaders of each sport to fully eliminate injuries to the brain. Penalizing players can work sometimes, however a better way that can reduce head impacts is teaching and training players how to better tackle other players. This strategy is now being taught to athletes across different sports so that hopefully the risk of concussions and even CTE decrease.
Another method to reduce concussions and repetitive head impacts that lead to CTE, would be to have a discussion with young athletes on the pros and cons of playing contact sports. When young athletes are included in the discussion on participating in contact sports, they know the risks and are better prepared for the possibility of concussions. For instance, medical professionals “recommend that young people be included in the discussion of concussion and repetitive head trauma and the unknown risk of CTE” (Hornbeck et al. 688-689).
Research also suggests that children want to be included in discussions about the risks and unknowns of playing sports. This allows the young athletes themselves to make the decision of playing contact sports and to not be pressured into playing by their parents. This free agency also allows young athletes to be more knowledgeable on when to keep playing or to retire from contact sports. Discussion between athletes, parents and medical professionals will hopefully cause less head injuries as players will be better informed on the risks. This method won’t eliminate concussions, but it may reduce the risks.
While others believe that eliminating contact sports is the only way to solve the problem. For example, Dr. Bennett Omalu “believes no child should participate in contact sports such as football, hockey, boxing, or lacrosse to prevent all CTE in youth athletes as much as possible (Hudson et al. 4).” Dr. Omalu does have a point in that the only way to stop concussion and the risk of CTE in youth athletes would be to eliminate them altogether. However, by eliminating contact sports, we as a society would lose apart of our culture as contact sports such as football, basketball, soccer, etc. are ingrained in today’s culture. If we stop playing contact sports, possibly other social and health problems could develop.
Some believe in eliminating contact sports, other don’t want to act and would rather ignore the crisis that they are responsible. Professional sports have long been known to hide information on concussions and CTE from the public to ensure that they would keep making money and not have to pay any consequences. However, that strategy has now fallen apart as the NFL has had to pay for the damage that they have done to their players. The NFL and other leagues have now reluctantly been changing their rules to better protect players. However, at the moment their efforts to change have not been enough. If athletes don’t want to risk their lives for the game, then the rules will have to continue to change or athletes will have to stop playing the game that they love.
In conclusion, there is still much to be studied and evaluated on the issue of concussions and CTE in contact sports. After every new study there is more information on the problem at hand and hopefully this information will increase the chance of finding a solution for it. However, there is one thing for certain which is in the coming years there will be many changes to the sports that we love or once loved. The only hope sports fans have is if people from across sports and medical fields can come together and find a solution or we may see the end of contact sports.