Columnist gives her opinion on the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy on football players

BY ELLIE CRESPO, ’22. PHOTO BY BELLA VANMETER, ’22.

On Aug. 17, Hall of Famer Brett Favre and the Concussion Legacy Foundation published a public service announcement (PSA) urging parents to keep their children out of tackle football until they’re 14-years-old. This plea was made due to the growing concern over chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative brain disorder that has been known to affect retired football players. Over the past few years, Favre has become an advocate for concussion awareness and research under the fear that he is living with CTE himself; he believes this due to his short-term memory loss issues—a common symptom of CTE. When this PSA was released, football fans, like myself, were rightfully shocked. How could legendary quarterback Brett Favre be so passionately in opposition to youth football?

Growing up in the heart of Ohio, less than 10 minutes away from the Horseshoe, my life has revolved around football. Although I’m a devoted Buckeye fan, I was always conflicted between the Bengals’ and Browns’ respective fanfares. That was, until my brother chose to be a Browns fan, pushing me to the Bengals’ side out of spite.

Many of my core memories are centered around football. I remember watching The Ohio State football team win the National Championship in 2015 and Joe Burrow shout-out local food banks in Ohio, inciting a flush of donations to be sent to the Athens County Food Pantry. These memories remind me why I love the game of football so dearly and the community that surrounds it. Other memories, however, have impacted me differently. 

In 2016, the Wild-Card game—which reignited the long-standing rivalry between the Bengals and the Steelers—held one of the most notable illegal hits in recent years. Bengals offensive lineman Vontaze Burfict, who is notorious for his brutal hits, delivered a violent blow to Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, leaving him limp and concussed. This single hit changed the trajectory of Brown’s life, who has noticeably suffered a personality change since with newfound erratic and violent behavior. This was my first introduction to CTE.

CTE develops from the accretion of subconcussive events—events where the brain is shaken against its cranium boundaries. In relation to football, these events occur due to the force of impact when one player collides with another. These collisions, as the name suggests, are not the vicious concussion-inducing crashes; they’re the more common, and often overlooked, mild hits which cause the brain to rock against its skull; these hits occur frequently each season and are a built-in feature of the game. As Favre’s PSA says, “the more years [someone] plays, the more years [they’re] at risk.”

UA football players huddle around their teammate.

The brain disease comes with a wide range of symptoms, which worsen over the four identified stages. The first stage consists of mild signs like short-term memory loss, headaches and loss of concentration. The second stage adds depression and mood swings to the list of symptoms. Stage three of CTE causes aggressive behavior, explosivity, cognitive impairment, severe memory loss and suicidal tendencies. The fourth stage is marked by all of the symptoms mentioned to a more severe degree.

CTE, however, is a remarkably difficult disease to study since it can only be officially diagnosed post-mortem through the examination of sliced brain tissue. And, although medical providers suspect many football players are living with the condition, this problem has drawn skeptics to deny any connection between current football players and brain disorders. However, studies have proved a link between the two, despite research limitations.

Purdue University, for example, monitored the brain function of football players at Jefferson High School in Lafayette, Ind., during two separate seasons. The researchers’ goal was to discover how many hits are needed to cause a change in cognitive ability and activity. They did so by studying how each player’s brain reacts to different tasks over the course of the season through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as players engaged in digital, neurocognitive screening tests. The most notable finding from the study was that brain activity is altered regardless of whether players suffer concussive-inducing hits or not; the mere sustainment of subconcussive hits is enough to change a player’s cognitive abilities. During each player’s neurocognitive screening test after the season’s end, the fMRI showed that the frontal lobe of the brain—which is most affected by CTE—had little activation when performing the tasks assigned to it.

A helmet sensor, which collects impact data, was used to assess hits sustained by each player. It recorded not only the number of hits each player took but also the g-force of each hit, with some impact forces exceeding over 100 Gs (for context, a header in soccer is 20 Gs).

This sensor could be extremely valuable in revolutionizing how the game of football is played. If this sensor has the ability to measure the impact and danger of each hit, it can be used to remove players from the game before they absorb too much impact force to their brain. Other proposed solutions to mitigate the problem of brain damage from football include adding weight limits, removing helmets from the game entirely to discourage head-on tackles or, as Favre suggested, barring youth players under 14 from playing football entirely.

I love football, however, turning on my T.V. every Sunday with the knowledge that the men I’m watching have a chance of ending up with CTE makes it difficult to continue doing so. It’s imperative that the fans, like myself, be vocal in advocating for changes to be made and safety protocols to be strengthened. Or else, the lives of the players of America’s favorite sport will be in jeopardy.