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More Evidence of Football's Destructiveness

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The latest findings from an ongoing study on football and brain injuries by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University show that 87 of 91 deceased National Football League players had signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The study showed that 96 percent of NFL players in its sample and 79 percent of athletes who played football at any level from high school to the pros tested positive for the degenerative brain disease. In total, 131 of the 165 individuals who donated their brains to the study showed signs of CTE.

The researchers note that these results reflect a slight bias because the pool of players who volunteered to have their brains studied post-mortem did so because they suspected they had the disease. Even if the true incidence of CTE among football players might not be quite as high as these numbers suggest, it still is high enough that we should be taking the disease much more seriously. From youth leagues to the pros, the football industrial complex is invested in creating doubt around studies such as this one.

Consider, for example, the major sticking point in the $1 billion concussion settlement between the NFL and a class of almost 5,000 former players and their families. Almost 90 players are appealing the settlement. They reject the league's demand that it shouldn't also cover future diagnoses of CTE, which means it could exclude the vast majority of players who have yet to develop the disease. About 6,000 of 19,000 former players could be eligible to receive either a payout or ancillary benefit from the settlement, in line with the NFL's own estimate that almost a third of retired players will develop long-term cognitive damage. Objectors point to studies such as the one by the VA and BU to show that the settlement could be significantly underestimating the prevalence of CTE. It seems that enough doubt was cast on these studies in court to allow the  settlement to be accepted by the league and the prosecution.

"It is the height of hypocrisy for the parties to defend a settlement that offers nothing for CTE to the vast majority of class members by arguing that those claims could not prevail at trial because the science is too new," lawyer John Pentz wrote on behalf of the objectors.

Trusted data from independent scientific sources matters more than ever, as the NFL continues to fund research that paints the league favorably and raises questions of conflicts of interest. Before the Super Bowl, the NFL claimed that the number of recorded concussions in 2014 had fallen to 111, down 25 percent from 2013 and a drop of 36 percent compared with 2012. PBS's Frontline is tracking officially recorded concussions for 2015: Just two weeks into the season, there have 25 head injuries in the NFL. But as the VA/BU study shows, the focus on the incidence of concussion may be obscuring serious, long-term brain damage. As Frontline's Jason M. Breslow writes, "That finding supports past research suggesting that it’s the repeat, more minor head trauma that occurs regularly in football that may pose the greatest risk to players, as opposed to just the sometimes violent collisions that cause concussions." 

Although the league and its detractors don't agree on the prevalence of CTE, the data increasingly suggest such injuries are linked to the very nature of football. The league can reform its tackling technique and institute penalties to cut down on helmet-to-helmet hits, but it can't change the game itself. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net