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SPEAK OUT! News Bit . . . . . Football, Brain Injury & Kids

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.


(Clip Art compliments of Bing.)

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On The Air: Brain Injury Radio “Another Fork in the Road” with Author, Jim Proebstle

On The Air: Brain Injury Radio “Another Fork in the Road”


Author, Jim Proebstle



Donna O’Donnell Figurski



Jim Proebstle, author of “Unintended Impact: One Athlete’s Journey From Concussions in Amateur Football to CTE Dementia,” tells the story of his older brother, Dick Proebstle, who didn’t get the fame and fortune of some NFL Football players, but did get the repercussions as he received countless head injuries while playing high school and college football.

Dick’s life went from the stars to an abyss over the course of 50 years. He lost so much without his knowing or understanding why. In fact, his children and family didn’t understand his decline either. Jim Proebstle 1It wasn’t until CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) came to the forefront when neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu  discovered the disease in the autopsied brain of 50-year-old Mike Webster, a once-upon-a-time revered Pittsburgh Steeler whose life unexpectedly declined soon after retirement. This left Webster homeless and exhibiting abnormal behaviors. Soon after, the brains of many other deceased NFL players were examined and various degrees of (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) were also found. Dr. Omalu’s discovery began to open eyes of many other scientists and Boston University began a study. 89 of the 93 donated NFL player brains, were found to have CTE, which explained to the families the many bizarre behaviors their loved ones were exhibiting before they died.

Jim Proebstle Unintended Impact BookJim wrote his book, “Unintended Impact” to not only honor his brother, but also to  raise awareness of the dangers of all head injuries. Jim also authored two other books, “Fatal Incident” and “In the Absence of Honor.” You can find any of Jims’ books at amazon.com

If you missed this show with Jim Proebstle, author of “Unintended Impact: One Athlete’s Journey from Concussions in Amateur Football to CTE Dementia” on “Another Fork in the Road” on March 20th, 2016, don’t fret. You can listen to the archived show here. Click the link below.

To learn more about Jim Proebstle, please visit his website.

See you “On the Air!”

On The Air: Brain Injury Radio “Another Fork in the Road” with author, Jim Proebstle


(Clip Art compliments of Bing.)

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Brain Injury Resources . . . . . . Will Smith’s Movie, Concussion, Based on True Story

Will Smith’s Movie, Concussion, Based on True Story 



Donna O’Donnell Figurski

Brain th-2Concussion is scheduled to be in theaters in late December, but it is already making headlines (review and trailer). The National Football League (NFL) knows that its Achilles heel is the high risk of brain injury to its players, not only from documented concussions, which are likely to be far fewer in number than actual concussions, but also from the repeated sub-concussive hits, which many neurologists believe contribute to brain injury. Former players are concerned (video of the song Final Drive by former NFL star Kyle Turley), and current players are becoming concerned. Recently a promising rookie linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers quit after one season over the fear of brain injury.



Concussion is based on the true story of the discovery of the brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) by Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian pathologist who did the autopsy of Hall-of-Fame Pittsburgh Steelers center, Mike Webster. Dr. Omalu first saw CTE during his study of Webster’s brain. Webster was homeless, depressed, and suffering from dementia when he died at age 50. Dr. Omalu’s story, which is the basis of Concussion, is given in the PBS Frontline documentary League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. I urge everyone to watch the documentary before seeing Concussion. The 2-hour PBS documentary is available online at no cost. In Concussion, Will Smith plays Dr. Omalu.

Omalu & Smith

Dr. Bennet Omalu & Will Smith

This movie may change what you think about American football and the NFL. Knowing that brain disease is a major problem for the future of the game, the NFL tried to discredit Dr. Omalu and his provocative work. The NFL had previously established a questionable committee of doctors to study mild traumatic brain injuries (MTBIs), otherwise known as concussions. The NFL committee published papers claiming that MTBIs, even multiple MTBIs, were not a problem for players. (The conclusions are contradicted by current data. Also, some scientists question the validity of the published studies.)

NFL LogoDr. Omalu thought that the NFL would be very interested in his data. Instead, the NFL’s MTBI committee immediately attacked Dr. Omalu and his findings. At one point, the committee tried to get Dr. Omalu to retract the paper. Going against the multibillion dollar NFL has a steep price. Dr. Omalu has stated that he wishes he had never discovered CTE.

To date, CTE has been found in 88 of 92 autopsied NFL brains (1, 2). The currently accepted way that CTE is identified is by studying the brain postmortem. The major criticism of the postmortem analyses that were done is that the brains came from former players who already showed signs of brain disease. In other words, the claim is that the sample is biased. Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University’s CTE Center, studied most of the brains. She argues that the results would be extraordinary even in a biased sample.


Dr. Ann McKee – neurolpathologist at Boston University

With a recent advance in technology, it seems that the bias criticism can soon be put to rest. Dr. Omalu is an author on a recent publication, in which neuroscientists from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and from the University of Chicago showed that CTE can be accurately diagnosed in a living person by a special PET (positron emission tomography) scan. If such scans were taken of all the current players, we would know if CTE is rare among players, as the NFL would like players and fans to believe, or if it’s relatively common, as Dr. Ann McKee believes.

Until that happens, we are left to decide about the risk of brain disease in players of American football on the basis of what we know. Concussion tells the little-known story of Dr. Omalu and the discovery of CTE. With this movie, we will be more informed and better able to evaluate the risk.


Dr. Bennet Omalu – pathologist

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