While the world of football is still reeling from a new report finding evidence of CTE in the brains of all but one of 111 deceased former NFL players, the league is gearing up for its latest season. Teams across the country are starting their pre-season training camps, but some of the athletes are having a hard time shaking off the feeling that something is very wrong in the NFL.
In particular, Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said the findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association have stirred a lot of tough discussions in the locker room. While some remain skeptical or committed to the sport, Davis told Charlotte Observer reporters he found the news “alarming.”
“We definitely talked about it. That’s something that’s definitely – it’s alarming. I will say it’s something we’re really paying close attention to as players,” Davis said. “I would be lying to you if I (said) that I didn’t get nervous seeing that stat. That’s a very alarming stat.”
Of course, the feeling isn’t unanimous. A recently acquired wide receiver for the Panthers, Russel Shepard, told the media he isn’t concerned about the risks.
“At the end of the day, the money you make, the people you meet, the experience you get from playing this game, I’ll take it against CTE,” Shepard said. “It just comes with it and it doesn’t scare me at all.”
Unfortunately, Shepard is far from the only NFL player to take this stance. Several athletes from other teams have said they feel like they “know the risks” and are willing to accept the consequences from years of head injuries.
“CTE’s inevitable. I probably already have it,” said Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who played through a concussion in 2015. “I’m sure it accumulates. It’s scary because there’s new information. It’s easy to get freaked out about it.”
This opinion extends to some of the coaching staff, including Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who played in the NFL for 13 years.
“I think all players, even in the old days, we understand there are risks to playing in the business. There are risks to working in a mill. There are risks working as a policeman,” Reich said. “But I think most of the players have an understanding of that, and embrace it. That doesn’t mean you don’t study it and try to figure out what you can do to help, and what the effects are, so you can make a good, educated decision. But we love this game, man.”
Even when athletes like Jenkins see the severity of the findings and generally recognize the risk of CTE, they often seem to misunderstand the brain disease or how it develops. They believe they’ll know when the time is right to walk away – if they haven’t developed CTE already.
“You look at this locker room, and that study means that everybody in this locker room (will) have CTE except maybe one of us,” Jenkins said. “I understand the cost. Once that cost gets too high, I’ll walk away.”
“There’s a shelf life for each individual player, that I think guys are starting to adhere to and not push past that,” Jenkins insisted.
That’s all well and good, but it isn’t exactly accurate. CTE doesn’t give people a convenient warning sign when they are pushing their limits. In fact, the neurodegenerative disease typically doesn’t become apparent until years later. Additionally, Jenkins admits there are numerous factors that can complicate the idea of retiring for your health.
“Depending on how much money you’re making, what opportunities are out there for you — you’ve got families depending on the income,” Jenkins said. “It’s not just that simple, to walk away from it.”
Perhaps most concerning is the fatalistic response from many players. A large number of athletes interviewed this week expressed the feeling that they likely already have CTE or know it’s a risk, and seem to think there’s no way of avoiding it.
Joe Berger, guard for the Minnesota Vikings who missed several games last season with a concussion, said he’s not worried about the findings.
“There are lots of things that can happen to you in life,” Berger said. “Obviously, you’re raising your chances by playing football. But, no, I’m not too concerned about it.”
Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford echoed the sentiment saying, “I think it comes with the understanding that these are the risks we take when we play football.”
Bradford also admits he doesn’t pay much attention to scientific studies like these because he fears they could affect his performance.
“I probably haven’t spent a ton of time looking at the numbers and the studies, but I think it’s starting to become a little bit more concerning because it seems that each study that comes out, they’re finding more and more brain trauma, which is obviously a little bit scary,” Bradford said Wednesday. “But, at the same time, I don’t think you can pay attention to it because if you start looking at all those and get worried, it takes away from your ability to go out there and actually play football.”
Ultimately, the feeling throughout the league seems to be that the risks are worth it or there’s no escaping the consequences once you’re in the NFL. This shows many athletes in the leagues still lack a thorough understanding of CTE or the effect of repeated concussions. Rather than take precautions, they’re blindly accepting CTE as an inevitability and potentially putting themselves at worse risk down the line.