The danger of professional football is a hot topic. Studies have found high concussions, traumatic brain injuries, and a severe brain disorder called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) in former players. These injuries can have terribly debilitating effects. Researchers from Buffalo’s SUNY undertook a study of twenty-one men who had played either professional football or professional hockey. The participants ranged in age from mid-thirties to the early seventies; they were studied principally in their health. As it turns out that, when compared with other men who were involved in swimming, cycling, or running, they suffered more from clinical anxiety. They were more aware of a type of dementia, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., that was besetting many players in the N.F.L. and N.H.L. This disease can be caused by head injuries—precisely the kinds of impacts they suffered while playing professional sports.
Buffalo investigators did manage to find that the ex-pro athletes, despite their fears, were no more prone to early-onset dementia than those who played non-contact sports. Though their study was small, it was presented as reassuring proof that worries over C.T.E. were overblown. Being both notorious and cherished for its unapologetic, brute-force violence, and for decades, getting one’s bell rung on the football field was considered a badge of honor, even though they all knew that whacks to the head would have consequences later on. Still, the concern was mainly reserved for moderate or severe traumatic brain injuries, or T.B.I.s, which could permanently impair a person, in a coma, or worse. In the mid-nineties, this mindset started to change. Physicians began to understand that a concussion was much more serious as dizziness, depression, insomnia, and memory loss, along with other symptoms, may linger for months, even years. A few years later, new evidence suggested that repeated exposure to subconcussive impacts that didn’t register as problematic at the time of the injury might result in C.T.E. later in life.
But these concerns did not immediately transform the way people saw boxing and football. The sport was already considered dangerous; a little more danger didn’t matter. Football was now seen as the most popular and most destructive American sport. Not everyone exposed to repeated head injuries will develop neurological problems in the long-term; the danger within any group of players seems to be distributed unevenly, just as some lifelong smokers get lung cancer, while others don’t. It’s still unclear how many athletes, overall, are at risk. Their risks are a big part of their attraction. Players and parents must seriously ask themselves difficult questions with vague answers. Is the risk too much?