Like many in neuroscience, I’ve been thinking about the consequences of traumatic brain injury in football. In thinking about this, I think I’ve figured out how American-style football will end. I’m putting the over/under at about 10 years.
The simple explanation of football is this: football is the optimal activity to put the maximum explosive energy a human can develop and deliver it to another human, pause, catch your breath, and do it again. Football is a game of inches, and so the ball is carried by huge, weight-lifting sprinters who hurl their 200+ pound frames at a line of huge, weight-lifting thugs who try to stop them cold. I am not anti-football: I played a little football in high school, I played full-pads, full contact intramural football while an undergraduate (an insurance company’s nightmare), and was a rugby player and coach as a graduate student. My own athletic skill was thuggery.
The problem with this is that repetitive shocks to the brain seem to create pathology in the brain of the protein tau. Athletes who engage in contact sports have a tendency to suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is identified pathologically by finding dense tangles of tau. Dense tangles of tau have been found in boxers, football players, professional wrestlers, and soldiers. There is concern in hockey players and soccer players who head the ball. One researcher found tau tangles in 8 of 9 donated brains from former NFL players. This kind of accumulation of tau is associated with young-onset dementia, cognitive change, and mood disorders.
Here’s my scenario for how football ends: a late-teenager in or recently graduated from a private school dies in a car accident, killing himself and several friends. He played football. Pathological examination finds signs of CTE. (This happens.) His parents claim that early cognitive change resulted in his making the poor choices that resulted in his death, and that this cognitive change was a result of football, and specific techniques that were taught by the coach contributed. (A football player who later studied biomechanics told me that running with high knees imparts a rotational torque on the lineman’s head, rotational motion is most commonly responsible for sports-related concussions.) The school, fearing a huge court award, settles.
The insurance companies see the writing on the wall: our schools are taking healthy teens with developing brains and encouraging them to play a sport that subjects those brains to trauma, protecting them from abrasion but this and cut all coverage for football programs, fearing the future liability for past programs they covered. High school football collapses, then football at private universities. The NFL becomes like WWE — no real feeder program, with serious athletes being raised on other sports.
That’s it. It’s a simple story that probably happens many times a year. (The rate of motor vehicle-related death in the 15-19 age group is 25/100,000.) An ambulance-chasing attorney could read the paragraph above and set a google news alert, this post probably contains all the necessary scientific references to pursue a case. Alternatively, we could change football to make it less dangerous. Yes, it’s true that humans have been teaching their young males violence for millennia, but only for a couple of decades have we made a science of athletic performance that resulted in such huge, fast, and strong competitors. Evolution hasn’t kept up.
Peter Schmidt, Ph.D. is the Vice President, Programs and Chief Information Officer at the National Parkinson Foundation where he oversees NPF’s research, education, and outreach initiatives.