It is no secret that the NFL has a brain injury problem. The issue has been covered by pretty much every major new source, and high profile deaths and suicides linked to repeated brain damage has kept the topic at the forefront of sports and health discussions.
All this time, the finger has been pointed at concussions, or traumatic brain injuries, as the ultimate source of the significant long-term brain damage plaguing football players. It is believed repeated traumatic brain injuries lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disorder that causes depression, anxiety, and cognitive deficits. Unfortunately for the NFL, it may be the quantity of hits players are enduring, not the isolated cases of concussions.
According to USA Today, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic studied college football players, and found that athletes can experience significant brain damage solely due to continuous head collisions, even when concussion doesn’t occur. The study, published in PLoS ONE, took blood samples and undertook brain scans and cognitive tests with 67 college football players before and after games during the 2011 season.
The results of the blood tests showed that the 40 players who had taken the heaviest hits, according to film reviews and post game interviews, had heightened amounts of an antibody connected to brain damage. The abnormalities were then confirmed via brain scan.
None of the players involved in the study had a documented concussion throughout the study, yet more than half of the participants showed signs of brain damage similar to those found in TBI patients, specifically an auto-immune response and damage to the blood-brain barrier.
This is grim news for football. Concussions are difficult enough to combat. The injuries are practically invisible, egos and career stability often keep players from reporting their own injuries, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy is being found in more and more players. How is the sport supposed to fight hits that are fundamental to the sport?