TBI – Survivors, Caregivers, Family, and Friends

Football, Brain Injury & Kids



Donna O’Donnell Figurski


newsboy-thIs American football a dying sport? With football’s prominence in American culture, it seems safe to assume no one would predict that its days are numbered. But, there is a growing undercurrent that may eventually lead to the demise of football as we know it. There is more and more evidence that the constant subconcussive hits experienced by football players lead to a high risk of the brain disease CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). CTE can lead to early dementia, football12depression, suicidal thoughts, or problems with cognition, memory, or impulsive behavior.

Recently published by the Journal of the American Medical Association is more evidence of the enormous risk of developing CTE by playing American football. (CTE can at present only be confirmed upon studying brain tissue at autopsy, although research is being directed to finding a test that can detect CTE in the brains of living players.) A study of 202 brains of former football players was done by researchers at the VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University. They found CTE in 87% of all the brains studied. Of the 110 brains of former professional players in the NFL (National Football League, the premier professional football league in the US), 109 (99%) showed CTE. Playing only college football did not significantly reduce the risk of having CTE, which was found in 91% of the brains of former college players. Playing less football did seem to lower the risk. Only 27% of the brains of former players who played through high school, but no further, showed evidence of CTE. Also, the severity of CTE was probably less with less playing time.

brain4The results have important implications for players. Many players feel they’ve been left ignorant of the risks of brain injury by the NFL, or worse, assured by the league that there is minimal risk. [Some players have quit or retired early (1, 2). Recently, a class-action lawsuit about concussions brought by former players against the NFL was settled for $1 billion.] The NFL has argued, and most players and fans who know about CTE believe, that the brains being studied are biased toward CTE because the autopsied brains in large part are from players already suspected of having a brain injury. Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston University researcher who has examined many of the brains, has stated that the results are staggering even for a biased sample (go to 1:35:58 in the video). She has stated, “It is no longer debatable whether or not there is a problem in football; there is a problem.”

Evidence of any CTE in high school football players is particularly disturbing (go to 1:29:08 in the video). Parents have taken note. Even though the NFL is actively promoting football directly to children, enrollment in youth football leagues is significantly down. Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered CTE by studying the brain of Mike Webster, the football-teamfamous Pittsburgh Steeler Center, wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times titled “Don’t Let Kids Play Football.” During my radio interview of George Visger, a former lineman for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers who had to quit the game because of a brain injury, he speculated that the preeminence of football in American society will disappear because the NFL’s talent pool will dry up. He speculates that the cost of liability insurance will be too high for youth football leagues to pay (go to 30 minutes into my interview of him).

There is no doubt that American football is exciting to watch, and there are many benefits to playing such a demanding team sport. But, difficult as it is to believe, it seems likely that the high risk of brain injury will eventually end the game.


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Comments on: "SPEAK OUT! News Bit . . . . . Football, Brain Injury & Kids" (4)

  1. Yes Donna, the results of playing football can be traumatic to anyone that plays and their families. I am not sure how this can be avoided in any sport. Football players with the constant contact, soccer players with the headers to the ball, volleyball, and baseball with a wild pitch or line drive. There are dangers in every sport, football is probably the worst.

    I played football in high school. We used to grab each others face mask and bang our heads together in front of the other team, showing we were tough. We were stupid too. I was in a car accident the year I graduated, it was my first semester of college.

    I suffered a closed head injury, a tbi from whiplash, and I also had a stroke. I was in a coma for 50 days. My disability was very traumatic. I am terrified that CTE will be in my future. I have traumatic epilepsy, it is controlled by a combination of four medicines. I have short term and long term memory loss for which I take two medicines they give to Alzheimer’s patients . I am physically disabled. I am not complaining, but I have an accelerated effects like those who have CTE. I am now fifty years old.

    Was three years of football worth the chance of getting CTE? I do not have children, but I probably would not let him play. Any other sport would still be questionable. I know previously, I had wrote in favor of allowing to play. There are other activities to allow your children in which will not cause this devastating injury. Think of your children.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Charlie, you’ve lived a LOT of years with brain injury and know a lot of how it impacts your life. Accidents can’t be avoided, but in sports folks need to consider the options and make good choices. We can only hope.

      Donna O’Donnell Figurski

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Freedom to play any dangerous activity is earned through adequate risk communication. Targetting groups more likely to ne at risk is a start. The goal is to let anyone enjoy the sport they love, but only if full understanding of risks. That is a free choice. Children wilk ckiml trees, practice poor virus hygiene and affect classmates, bully or viciously one another, so accidents injuries and unfortunate permanent damage cannot be stopped in childhood through regulations instituted by school and state; remedial measures should minimize the Number of brain injuries, but the category of brain injury can never be in limited. Adequate risk assessment and communication is the only way to fully informed participants before they choose to adopt the rest and enjoy the sport, or avoid the risk and find a less dangerous activity.


    • tbihealing,

      It is a choice. You are right. I only hope that parents make the right choices for their children.

      I definitely appreciate your thoughtful comments.

      Donna O’Donnell Figurski


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