Boston University Study Finds Many CTE Cases in Former NFL Players

In honor of football’s biggest spectacle, the Super Bowl, Boston University released concerning stats surrounding chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former National Football League (NFL) stars.

Key takeaways:

The study from Boston University CTE Center diagnosed 345 out of 376 (91.7%) former NFL players with CTE. The condition is repeatedly caused by repeated traumatic brain injuries and can only be diagnosed following death.

According to the CDC, researchers are not yet aware of how many blows to the head are necessary to cause CTE.

Two of the 345 diagnosed include former players who once displayed the helmet of the teams paired in this year’s Super Bowl LVII matchup. Former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Rick Arrington and Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Ed Lothamer were both found to have CTE. Lothamer was a member of the Chiefs' first Super Bowl triumph in 1970.

Arrington’s daughter, Jill, says it is important for brain research revolving around CTE to continue.

"I miss my hero dearly," Arrington said. "It pains me to know his life was cut short by the sport he loved most. As a brain donor, part of his legacy is in this research, and I want all former football players to know how important it is to contribute and sign-up for studies so Boston University CTE Center researchers and their collaborators around the world can learn how to treat, and one day cure, the disease that devastated our family."

The amount of NFL players with CTE is a stark contrast to Boston University CTE Center’s previous study in 2018. Of 164 brains including both men and women, only one contained CTE. That individual was a former college football player.

Boston University says their study does not necessarily mean 92% of all NFL players have some sort of CTE. They highlight the study may include possible selection biases from the brain bank used.

Boston University CTE Center director, Ann McKee, M.D., says CTE is something the everyday person does not need to fear.

"While the most tragic outcomes in individuals with CTE grab headlines, we want to remind people at risk for CTE that those experiences are in the minority," McKee said. "Your symptoms, whether or not they are related to CTE, likely can be treated, and you should seek medical care. Our clinical team has had success treating former football players with mid-life mental health and other symptoms."

Former Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas died at the age of 33 on Dec. 9, 2021. Boston University confirmed Thomas was diagnosed with stage 2 CTE, and that he had suffered from depression, headaches, and chronic pain in his 20s. His symptoms continued to worsen in his early 30s before his passing.

The NFL came under fire this season after a scary scene with Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa. In week 3 against the Buffalo Bills, Tagovailoa sustained a blow that forced him out of the game. The Dolphins claimed it was a back injury, which allowed him to re-enter the game. Many suspected the Dolphins skipped the NFL’s concussion protocol, which led to an NFL investigation.

Before week 4’s game against Cincinnati, Tagovailoa was given the go-ahead to start despite head injury fears. In the fourth quarter, Tagovailoa was slung to the turf during a vicious sack where he was unable to stand on his own accord. He was stretchered off the field and transported to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center with head and neck injuries before being discharged later that evening.

Tagovailoa’s misdiagnosed concussion in Buffalo led to the neurotrauma consultant’s firing who led his test, and also a revision in the NFL and NFLPA’s concussion protocol.

Over the years, the NFL has taken numerous steps for player safety. The league has gotten much more aggressive with roughing-the-passer penalties to protect QBs like Tagovailoa.

To increase player safety, the NFL 2010 moved the kick-off spot from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line to reduce kick returns. Also, the NFL no longer allowed the kickoff team a five-yard head start. The idea behind these rules was to lower the amount of high-impact collisions.

In 2013, the NFL instituted the targeting of a defenseless player penalty to reduce high-impact collisions. The new penalty came nearly one year following the death of former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau was found to suffer from CTE after his death.

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