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Harrowing study shows 87 of 91 deceased NFL players tested positive for brain disease

Jesse Reed
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Brain trauma suffered by NFL players is a growing concern these days, and a new study by researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University shows just how severe the consequences can be for those who play the game of football.

According to the study, via PBS.org, 87 of the 91 deceased players who were examined tested positive for brain damage.

The researchers “identified the degenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in 96 percent of NFL players that they’ve examined and in 79 percent of all football players. The disease is widely believed to stem from repetitive trauma to the head, and can lead to conditions such as memory loss, depression and dementia.”

These are harrowing findings, and they aren’t subject only to professional football players, either.

“In total, the lab has found CTE in the brain tissue in 131 out of 165 individuals who, before their deaths, played football either professionally, semi-professionally, in college or in high school.”

Offensive and defensive linemen are at increased risk for CTE, which isn’t surprising. Because they impact one another on every single play, they are repeatedly subject to minor trauma. Per the report, these lesser impacts are actually more dangerous over the long haul than the huge hits we see every so often that cause players to lose their equilibrium — or worse.

There is a caveat to the study, and a tricky one at that. Because the men who were examined posthumously had an idea that they might have been dealing with CTE, skeptics believe the findings are skewed. Furthermore, people who are still living cannot be definitively diagnosed with CTE — only “signs” of the disease can be identified.

These caveats shouldn’t be used as weapons against these alarming findings, however, according to Dr. Ann McKee, the facility’s director and chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System.

“People think that we’re blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that we’re sensationalizing it,” said McKee, who runs the lab as part of a collaboration between the VA and BU. “My response is that where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players.”

The NFL is furiously attempting to combat not only the perception that football is overwhelmingly dangerous to play, but also the real impact the game has on the players participating. The measures to reduce concussions have appeared to work, at least when talking about the concussions we see from big hits.

The league’s 2015 Health & Safety Report showed that “concussions in regular season games fell 35 percent over the past two seasons, from 173 in 2012 to 112 last season.” However, a separate analysis by FRONTLINE showed that number to be slightly lower, at 28 percent.

What the NFL cannot change, though, is the amount of contact players in the trenches are subject to on a regular basis. If, as the report suggests, offensive and defensive linemen are more at risk for long-term brain disease, due to the repeated minor impacts they engage in, then there isn’t anything the league can do to fix that problem without completely changing the game.

So, the next time you want to harp on how much money NFL players are raking in, perhaps it might be a good idea to hearken back to this concerning report. These players are putting themselves in harm’s way for the enjoyment of us all, oftentimes to the detriment of their long-term health.