Once again, a tough question and a sensitive subject has been brought into the spotlight by way of brain research. The NFL has produced the most instances of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in the world of professional sports, discounting boxing and MMA. Recently, it was discovered that Aaron Hernandez, the infamous 27-year-old ex-New England Patriot convicted of murder, was in CTE stage 3 out of 4.
Traditionally, the degenerative brain disease appears in retired NFL players when they reach their early 60s, and according to researchers at Boston University, over 100 former NFL players’ brains have been found to contain consistencies akin to accelerated aging of the brain.
Hernandez’s bizarre case raises important questions not only for the NFL, but for football as a whole. As time progresses, researchers are able to collect more data on the type of brain damage that a life full of football can inflict. The fact that Hernandez was only 27 when he took his own life has left the public somewhat shocked.
Hernandez’s suicide comes years after NFL stars Dave Duerson and Junior Seau shot themselves in the chests, taking their lives before reaching 55. Duerson, however, left his family a note urging them to donate his brain to Boston University’s School of Medicine.
Even though head injuries don’t make people murderous, Hernandez’s brain damage could be related to his jail-cell suicide. To reiterate, the head injuries don’t make Hernandez any less accountable for his actions, but preventing head injuries in games could reduce the amount of tragic endings such as his.
There is a lot to be said about the alarming rate at which Hernandez’s brain deteriorated. The conversation should begin at the high school level. One year after I graduated high school, I was stunned and deeply saddened to learn that one of my former classmates, Tom Cutinella, had passed away due to a head injury sustained in a football game.
It is impossible for someone like myself, who has never played football at a high school level or higher, to fathom what it is like on the field, but at a certain point the fundamental practices of the sport need to be edited.
The simplest solution is to implement penalties in football for hard hits to another player’s helmet. Players have been penalized and fined for hits to the helmet since 2010 and this was a step in the right direction for player safety and longevity of players’ lives after football. Fans certainly enjoy hard-hitting plays, as it is a large part of the game, but players are getting used to being penalized for these hits and are changing the way they play accordingly. If they don’t, they won’t see the field.
Initially, the decision to penalize and fine was met with backlash, and the fans called for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s job. However, the past seven years have shown that the game can still be an exciting experience for both players and fans, even without brutal hits.
As recently as this past Tuesday, researchers at Boston University made a breakthrough in testing brains of living patients for traces of CTE. The study published in the journal PLOS ONE tested the brains of 91 people. Twenty-three of the subjects were former college and professional football players, 50 were nonathletes with Alzheimer’s disease and 18 were nonathletes with healthy brains.
In the brains of the former football players, researchers found a high level of a protein linked with age-associated cognitive decline, CCL11. The level of CCL11 in the former football athletes was greater than the level present in the patients with Alzheimer’s brains.
The hardest thing for a fan to fathom is how many concussions the average NFL athlete has had throughout his life. In the worst cases, you are presented with Hernandez, Seau and Duerson. Their tragic endings should live as an example for all fans demonstrating the extreme reality that NFL stars are still humans, who must deal with the effects that football can have on their lives after they retire.