This is Your Brain Playing Football, Research Says


In the 1970s, fear of football players’ head injuries were out of sight and mind for high school, college and pro players, coaches and parents. That was then, when I played the popular sport. Recent research linking the playing of football to concussive brain injury reveals a paradigm shift in the biggest study to date.

“In a convenience sample of 202 deceased players of American football from a brain donation program, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was neuropathologically diagnosed in 177 players across all levels of play (87%), including 110 of 111 former National Football League players (99%),” according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. CTE, a degenerative disease of the brain that results from traumatic injuries such as concussions, was present in younger football players, too: “3 of 14 high school (21%), [and] 48 of 53 college (91%)” athletes.

Grant Feasel was one of the deceased former NFL players in this study, according to his widow, Cyndy, author of After the Cheering Stops. Grant died of CTE and alcoholism at the age of 52 after a 10-year NFL career as a center.

“Football is not safe for children to play,” Cyndy said. “I’m begging parents to look at the evidence.”

My wife and I have done that. We are two of the seven million American grandparents who live with at least a single grandchild, according to the US Census Bureau.

In fact we are rearing our grandson, age 7. We fret he risks CTE if his sports choice is to play tackle football in high school. That was my athletic path. I plead ignorance.

Thus, we are nudging our grandson to dance, basketball and swimming. So far, so good. He also enjoys playing baseball and soccer. I know, these are contact sports, too, with risks of trauma to the head and other parts of the body in every play.

In any case, we want him to avoid the big contact hits on the gridiron that elicit oohs and aahs from the crowd but also deliver long-term health issues such as CTE to the players. There are also football practices and scrimmages, where chances for concussions and CTE abound.

Today, the links between concussions, CTE and football is a source of angst among parents. I recall discussing this injury topic with my neighbor. Her son played a single season of high school football.

There is more than talking football going on. There is walking away from the contact sport, as well.

High school football participation dropped 3.12% over the past year in the Golden State, the most populous in the country, according to the California Interscholastic Federation. There were 107,916 high school football players in 2007 versus 97,079 in 2017 in the state.

That brings us to Dr. Bennet Omalu. He entered the public consciousness when Will Smith starred as the good doctor in the 2015 movie Concussion. My wife and I watched it with interest. Earlier, we saw League of Denial, a Frontline investigative special that begins with Dr. Omalu discovering CTE in the brain of Mike Webster.

Dubbed “Iron” Mike, Webster played center for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, anchoring the team’s offensive line to four Super Bowl wins. He died at the age of 50 with CTE that Dr. Omalu discovered.

As the first scientist to discover CTE as a football-related condition, Dr. Omalu recently said that parents who let their kids play the sport are guilty of child abuse. His critique is similar to that of Cyndy Feasel.

In sum, parents’ concern about their children’s current and future health and well-being in part puts the future of football, a multi-billion dollar global business, in question. The NFL reaped over $13 billion in revenue last year, far outstripping Major League Baseball, which earned $9.5 billion, MarketWatch reports.

Of course, young people, being impulsive creatures, can tend to choose the sports their (grand) parents object to. I sit accused of ignoring my late parents’ advice and counsel to be safe, first as a teen then later a young adult.

One other thing is clear to me today. The football and concussive brain injury story is not over. Much is at stake for many, from high school football players to their coaches, parents and the sportswriters whose livelihoods rely upon covering the games, and last but not least the NFL.

Seth Sandronsky lives and works in Sacramento. He is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2017

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