This Test Could End the NFL As We Know It


I love football. Like millions of other Americans, my Sundays are almost exclusively devoted to watching the Red Zone Channel.

However over the last several years I’ve become increasingly concerned about players’ health, specifically with respect to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, otherwise known as CTE. This condition is linked to football-related brain injuries such as concussions, and can lead to insomnia, depression, memory loss, cognitive impairment, emotional instability, and difficulty planning and carrying out tasks. At present, CTE can only be diagnosed after death by studying samples of brain tissue obtained during an autopsy.

I actually remember when I became acutely aware of just how serious CTE really was. It was February 17, 2011, the day former Chicago Bears safety, Dave Duerson, took his own life as the result of suffering from CTE symptoms. Dave had been a former client of mine when I worked as an investment banker. Our firm raised $20 million for his company, Duerson Foods, which provided beef to McDonalds’ restaurants. I had the privilege to work fairly closely with Davey for several months while the transaction was ongoing, and I found him to be highly intelligent, erudite, and charismatic. He was very proud to have played on the Bears’ championship team in 1985, and he always wore his Bears Super Bowl ring. Dave also was a member of the Giants team that won a Super Bowl in 1990. Although Dave told me he loved playing for coach Bill Parcells, his heart clearly belonged to the city of Chicago.

I remember Dave and I were eating lunch at a small restaurant across from my office one day, and I asked if I could try on his Bears championship ring. He just smiled, removed the ring from his finger, and slid it across the table. I remember being surprised by the size and the weight of the thing. This was before the age of cell phones, so regrettably I don’t have a picture with Dave or the ring, but I will carry the memory of that moment with me for the rest of my life.

I’ll also never forget one particular drive to the airport with Dave, when we spoke about his playing career, as we often did. I asked him if he’d had any lingering injuries. He said “no”. He said he was lucky, and his body was in fairly good shape.

Many years later when I’d heard the news of his death, I immediately flashed on that conversation. Had Dave known that he was unwell when we were working together? That’s certainly a possibility. I was asking a very personal question that was none of my business. But it’s also possible that Dave wasn’t yet suffering the effects of CTE, or maybe he was, but just didn’t know it. At that time, an unknown pathologist from Pittsburgh by the name of Dr. Bennet Omalu, had just published his first paper linking football related brain injuries and CTE. So Dave may have known things weren’t entirely right, but didn’t make the connection between whatever he was feeling, and football.

No matter the case, news of his death impacted me on a number of levels, not the least of which was the manner in which Dave chose to take his own life. Dave shot himself in the chest, and according to his suicide note, he did so in order to preserve his brain for CTE research being undertaken at the Boston University School of Medicine. It was an act of pure selflessness. He wanted his brain to be studied so others could avoid suffering as he did.

Not long after Dave’s death, San Diego Chargers’ Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, also ended his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Junior didn’t leave a suicide note, so his motives for ending his life with a self-inflicted wound to his chest are uncertain; the presumption is, like Dave he did so to preserve the integrity of his brain tissue. After Junior’s autopsy, his family disclosed that he too had suffered from CTE.

Since Dave and Junior have passed, the topic of CTE has garnered far more media attention, culminating with the 2015 feature film entitled, “Concussion.” The movie chronicles Dr. Omalu’s courageous battle against the NFL, as an unknown physician who tries to make one of the world’s most powerful organizations acknowledge a dark secret. The film was a blockbuster, and kicked into hyper-drive the public discourse over concussions, CTE, and NFL player safety. It was a good start, but it’s not nearly enough.

In recent study of deceased NFL players, researchers found evidence of CTE in 110 out of 111 cases.   While it’s worth noting that participants in the study probably had some indication that they were suffering from CTE during their lifetime, that statistic is still staggering. What’s even more astonishing is that former New England Patriot’s tight end (and convicted murderer) Aaron Hernandez committed suicide in jail cell at the age of 27, and his autopsy confirmed that he had severe CTE. Hernandez’ last game as a professional football player was in January of 2013, meaning he had contracted the disease by the age of 23. Clearly CTE can be contracted without a decade-long professional career.

So what does that mean for the sport so many of us love? I believe it means that if the game doesn’t fundamentally change in a manner that ensures far greater player safety, the long-term prospects for football are not good. Over time as we understand more about CTE, I believe fewer athletes will choose to participate in football, especially when there are other sports like baseball, basketball, and soccer, that offer a similar career opportunity with far less severe health risks. Sure those sports aren’t as popular, but an elite athlete can still provide for their family and have a good life after they’re done playing ball.

I’ve held this belief for many years and most are skeptical about my prediction. They say the sheer size and popularity of the NFL makes it too big to fail. To steal a line from the movie Concussion, “the NFL now owns a day of the week that used to belong to the church.”

While that’s true, you can just ask the Romans about what happens when participant safety becomes more important than the spectacle of gladiator games. Previously, I was of the opinion that it would take at least 20 years before the resultant consequence of concussions and CTE would drag football’s popularity down below even ice hockey. This belief was based on the fact that CTE could only be diagnosed post-mortem, which means gathering data, conduct studies, and drawing conclusions about the probability that any single player would contract the disease, is very time consuming.

However a recent report about a new CTE test has made me drastically rethink my projections. The NFL could be in jeopardy far sooner than I’d thought. Researchers at Boston University are working on a way to diagnose CTE in the living, by testing spinal fluid. If this test proves to be accurate, and if the test becomes sophisticated enough to diagnose players with early onset CTE, then I believe you’re going to start seeing the player attrition rate skyrocket in the NFL and possibly even in the college football.

If that were to occur, the consequences for the game will be dire; we’ve all seen what happens to football when the talent pool isn’t there, it’s called the XFL. Football for football’s sake isn’t enough to keep fans fanatic. The players need to be good. If a test is able to determine early stages of CTE, and if players choose to stop playing in order to preserve their health, how can the game survive? Remember Aaron Hernandez was only 23, and yet he had severe CTE. It would be foolish to believe he’s the only young player in college or pros so afflicted. At present, all of these players can now live in a state of denial. “It won’t happen to me”. The question becomes, what happens when the light of knowledge obliterates the hiding place currently provided by ignorance? Will they continue to play? Some might, but my guess is most probably won’t. And even the ones who do play after the early signs of CTE might have a hard time finding a team willing to sign (or resign) them. The liability is too great. Either way, I believe the corresponding reduction in player-participation will be significant enough to materially alter the quality of the product on the field in the NFL and possibly even college.

On some level the league is probably aware of this inevitability. To date, the NFL and NCAA’s solution has been to improve helmet technology, provide better medical care to players, implement strict concussion protocol that must be followed before and injured player resume play, and impose penalties on players who instigate head-to-head contact.

I think all of these measures are reasonable, but wholly inadequate. Improving medical care and treatment protocols is an ex-post facto measure, not preventative. And trying to improve the helmets is a fool’s errand, because equipment isn’t going to be good enough in the near future to prevent the brain from suffering damage when dealing with the type of concussive force associated with football. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible that better helmets could exacerbate the problem, because they won’t be good enough to prevent an insult to the brain, but they will increase a player’s feeling of invincibility. The only truly prophylactic measure taken by the NFL and NCAA is the imposition of stiffer penalties for head-to-head contact.

What else can be done?

Believe it or not, it starts with us. The fans. We must be willing to accept the hard truth that if the game is going to survive, it has to fundamentally change. Player safety must become more important than the violence of the sport. To that end, rather than trying to improve the helmets I’d actually make them worse. It sounds counter-intuitive but degrading the quality of player’s helmets would likely prevent them from using the crown of their head as a weapon. If helmets were only good enough to protect players from an impact with the ground, or incidental contact with another player, that may will reduce the impetus for one player to strike another player with their head. Something similar to a hockey helmet should do the trick.

In that same vein, I would also outlaw hitting. I know those words amount to blasphemy for some, but we’re talking about saving the players, and the game. A game without hitting would involve more tackling. Consider the physics. Two players colliding can experience upwards of 10 gravitational forces (“G-Forces”) on their bodies. If one of the players weighs 220 pounds, then during a 10 G-Force collision, he weighs more than a ton. To provide some sense of scale, fighter pilots typically experience 3g G-Forces on takeoff from an aircraft carrier, and Formula 1 drivers can experience in excess of 6 G-Forces during a race. Severe football collisions are roughly equivalent to an average person falling off of a two-story building.

Now contrast that with the physics of tackling. Two people weighing 250 pounds each running towards each other at 15 miles per hour, but instead of hitting, the defender wraps up the opposing player in a tackle. In that instance, the mass of players is doubled, and the velocity is roughly cut in half. The opportunity for a concussive impact to either player is significantly diminished, particularly if the players are wearing some sort of protective headgear.

Are either of these solutions a panacea? Probably not. Nor do I really think the NCAA or NFL would have the courage to actually adopt them even if they were. But the point of this piece is to try and move the conversation in a direction that advocates for actual solutions – even if those solutions are disruptive.

The only way to save football is to protect to the players. Period. There simply is no middle ground on this issue. Change is hard, especially when billions of dollars are at stake. I get that. But the cost of inaction will be far greater than the cost of action. This single CTE test could be the first domino to fall in in a sequence that is all too foreseeable. Better health data could increase early retirement, which in turn could reduce the quality of the game. At best, the diminution of the on-field product could lead to a significant decrease in the popularity of the sport, and at worst could destroy football altogether. Myopathy and hope cannot be the basis of football’s long-term strategy for dealing with CTE. The only chance we have of preserving this beautiful sport is for the college and professional leagues to get serious about protecting player safety, right now. It’s a difficult reality accept, but either the leagues are going to change the game, or this single test could change the leagues.

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Greg Harrison, the author of this report, is an independent contractor. Mr. Harrison was compensated by Sylva to author this report.

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    • Hi Fredrick – thank you for the comment. The test is not being developed by a company. See excerpt from the article below.

      “Researchers at Boston University are working on a way to diagnose CTE in the living, by testing spinal fluid.”