By William Busching '18
Last month, Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Artie Burns stole headlines with his unabashed assertion that he had CTE only two years into his NFL career. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, as the condition is formally known, is a neurodegenerative disease that has been found in more than one hundred former NFL players. Little is known about the disease, and little is agreed upon concerning its prevention.
As a disease of the brain, CTE brings with it a host of neurological maladies, including dementia, speech impediments, and depression. Former NFL tight end Aaron Hernandez, convicted of murder at the age of 23, was diagnosed with the disease after he died last April. Many have speculated that his criminal behavior was linked CTE.
CTE gets scarier. While its clear cause is trauma to the head, no one knows how much trauma is required for the disease’s occurrence. No proven treatment exists, and the only way to detect CTE is by autopsy after death. Mysteriously, about 20 percent of revealed CTE cases had no record of concussion earlier in life. New research has confirmed that even minor hits to the head, aggregated over time, can still cause major problems.
And that sounds a lot like football, a sport that rewards players for running into each other. While CTE has appeared in other sports, football has by far the highest rates of head injury: there were 244 concussions in the NFL in 2016. The league has taken a two-pronged approach to combat the issue. New rules have been adopted, designed to diminish many of the more violent hits. One focus of the rules has been special team situations, with touchback and fair catch rules decreasing high-speed collisions. Furthermore, professional teams seldom practice full contact, instead conducting practices in a manner similar to touch football.
Such changes have led some to argue that football has lost its appeal. President Trump himself bemoaned the new safety rules in football in September, lamenting how the game has “gone soft.” Mike Mitchell, a current Steelers player with an arguably more qualified opinion, shares a similar sentiment. He has said that he knew the risks when he joined the NFL, and went on to describe how the sport has enabled him to change his “family legacy” by affording him a sizable paycheck.
The way forward likely lies somewhere in between the two extremes of Burns and Mitchell. Football is by nature a violent sport, and such violence has played a part in accumulating an audience of millions. Player safety should obviously take precedence over the satisfaction of armchair fans. It has thus far, and ought to continue to. But playing football, in whatever form, comes with inherent risk. Even if the concussion issue is resolved, injuries will remain. The most we can do is ensure that they’re handled responsibly and that players are well-educated about the risks. Beyond that, there’s nothing to do but let the players play.