CTE, or ‘chronic traumatic encephalopathy’, is a “progressive brain condition that is caused by repeated blows to the head”, according to the NHS. Many athletes, including NFL players, boxers and rugby players are at risk of developing the brain disease, but there are still many question marks surrounding the mysterious brain condition. What exactly is it? How does it affect these athletes? And most importantly, what can we do to prevent the condition from becoming widespread in the world of contact sports?
The symptoms of CTE generally begin to take effect after several years of playing full-contact sport, and researchers believe that its symptoms are similar to progressive memory loss diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Memory loss, violent mood swings, and slurred speech are among the most common symptoms. Neuropathologists are still in the early stages of research on the condition, although studies have shown that the vast majority of players that currently compete in sports like boxing and rugby are at risk. Dr. Ann McKee, lead researcher at the CTE Center at Boston University, studied the brains of 111 deceased American football players for signs of CTE, and found that 110 — all but one — of the players displayed symptoms at varying degrees of severity.
Fortunately, many news outlets are now shedding light on the dangers of contact sports, and have warned athletes of the importance of taking care of themselves, both physically and mentally. ABC News reported on two former Australian rugby players that have shown symptoms of CTE. Dr. Christopher Nowinski said that he hopes this breakthrough “inspires the Australian scientific community to mobilize in the fight against CTE, and advances the conversation on reforms to sport that can prevent this disease”. Associate Professor Michael Buckland claimed that he had not had “not seen this sort of pathology in any other case before”. This breakthrough was made in the summer of 2019, leading many to believe that researchers have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg, in terms of CTE’s cause and effects.
Netflix recently produced a short docuseries on the trial of NFL player Aaron Hernandez, a talented young prospect that took his own life in prison, shortly after being found guilty of first-degree murder. It is called “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez”, and has received praise for its in-depth analysis into the pathology of NFL players dealing with CTE. According to Dr. Ann McKee, Hernandez suffered from an extreme case of CTE, and a post mortem report found that he sustained severe damage to his frontal lobe, which is responsible for impulse control, judgement and behaviour. McKee was quoted as saying “individuals with CTE of this severity have difficulty with … inhibition of impulses or aggression, often emotional volatility and rage behaviours”.
Many current NFL players are heeding the warning of leading experts on the study, and retiring earlier than once anticipated, in order to avoid sustaining lifelong brain trauma in the form of CTE. Carolina Panthers star Luke Kuechly retired from the NFL last month, at the age of 28, citing his deteriorating physical condition as the reason: “There’s only one way to play this game, since I was a little kid, is to play fast and play physical and play strong. At this point, I’m not sure if I’m able to do that anymore,” said Kuechly. With new research being conducted every day into the dangerous brain condition, I don’t believe that Luke Kuechly will be the last athlete to retire young, in order to save his mind.