Setting aside for a moment the hype, the glitz, the money, the commercials, the athleticism, the scoreboard, and the beer, chili, and wings-everything that comprises the NFL’s Super Bowl experience this weekend-the cold, sad truth remains that football is taking a horrible toll on some of its players. The extent of that price was made clear Monday in new figures released by the Boston University CTE Center.
According to its latest report, the CTE Center has diagnosed 345 former NFL players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, out of 376 former players who were studied, a rate of 91.7 percent. Two retired players from the two teams facing off in Super Bowl LVII on Sunday-the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles-were among those diagnosed with CTE in the last year. Those ex-players are one-time Eagles quarterback Rick Arrington, who played for them from 1970-73, and former Chiefs defensive tackle Ed Lothamer, who played for two of their Super Bowl teams.
To put those numbers in perspective, a 2018 BU study of 164 brains of men and women donated to the Framingham Heart Study found that only 1 of 164 (less than 1 percent) showed signs of the progressive degenerative brain disease. And that lone CTE case? A former college football player.
“[The players] feel invincible, at the top of the game, and I understand that and the power that must hold over them,” says Ann McKee, director of the BU CTE Center and chief of neuropathology at VA Boston Healthcare System. “But they are just unfortunately not living with the real risks of the disease. It makes me sad.”
Amid the frenzy of Super Bowl week, The Brink spoke with McKee about the latest numbers and her hopes for the most-watched and most popular professional sport in America.
McKee, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor of Neurology and Pathology, emphasized that the center’s data does not mean that roughly 92 percent of all former and current NFL players have CTE. She says the prevalence of the brain disease can only be definitively diagnosed after death, which is why the center relies so heavily on brains being donated for study. McKee says the biggest risk factor for CTE is not the violence of one or two isolated head blows, but rather the smaller, repetitive head impacts, like those that football players experience throughout a game or season. Those repeated blows cause a buildup of misfolded tau protein in the brain that is unlike the changes seen from aging, Alzheimer’s disease, or any other brain disease.
CTE research has advanced considerably in the last five years, with McKee’s center set to publish its 182nd study on the disease. “We’d like to thank our 1,330 donor families for teaching us what we now know about CTE, and our team and collaborators around the world working to advance diagnostics and treatments for CTE,” McKee says.
To learn more about the CTE Center, its studies, and its efforts to recruit more participants, scroll to the bottom of the story.
McKee and her team are inviting former athletes, including women, to participate in research studies designed to learn how to diagnose and treat CTE. The BU CTE Center is collaborating with its education and advocacy partner, the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), to recruit former football players and other contact sport athletes to five active clinical studies.
One of the studies, Project S.A.V.E., is recruiting men and women ages 50 or older who played five-plus years of a contact sport, including American football, ice hockey, soccer, lacrosse, boxing, full contact martial arts, rugby, and wrestling.
S.A.V.E. stands for Study of Axonal and Vascular Effects from repetitive head impacts. The major goal is to determine how repeated head impacts from playing contact sports can lead to long-term thinking, memory, and mood problems. The results could highlight strategies to treat and prevent symptoms associated with head impacts from contact sports. To learn more about Project S.A.V.E. and four other studies enrolling participants, click here. To sign up for future clinical studies, enroll in the CLF research registry.