After only two weeks of collegiate football, USA Today reported 15 concussions among injured NCAA players. In 2008, the Boston University School of Medicine released a statement linking repeated concussions to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Describing CTE as “a progressive degenerative disease of the brain,” the university connected CTE to “the development of memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoid and aggressive behavior, depression, dementia and Parkinsonism.” With thirteen weeks left, the NCAA should take action to reduce the number of concussions and protect players.
With such serious consequences, any number of concussions — let alone 15 — is too many. In early 2011, retired NFL player Dave Duerson, complaining of symptoms similar to those of CTE, shot himself in the chest. Prior to his suicide, Duerson left a message requesting that his brain be studied for CTE. The condition can only be diagnosed postmortem. The BUSM concluded that, at only 50 years old, Duerson had been suffering from “moderately advanced CTE.” Since then, former NFL players Junior Seau and Ray Easterling have also committed suicide, unable to cope with the onset of symptoms. Easterling was discovered to have developed CTE, and Seau was suspected of having developed the early stages.
Football fans must also be made aware of the gravity of injuries like concussions. The fact that concussions can cause serious, long-lasting effects is an unfamiliar concept to fans and players alike. Even fewer are aware of how frequently concussions occur. Retired NFL safety Miles McPherson explains, “There is no football player — maybe a punter — that has not had multiple concussions.” Awareness needs to be promoted among youth, since many of these long-term effects can be incurred at a young age. In 2009, a BUSM study showed that CTE can develop even in college players who never go professional, finding “early signs of the disease” in a deceased 18 year-old.
The concussion epidemic is substantiated by a strong desire to win that may be misinterpreted by players as a responsibility to play. At the University especially, the importance of a winning season can become inflated. Such an environment can create unreasonable expectations for concussed players to return to the game, further risking their health and future. While winning is not the responsibility of players, football fans are responsible for offering a level of understanding and concern to the players they root for.
Just as fans are accountable for a compassionate football culture, the NCAA is responsible for player safety. The NCAA must focus on refining its rules to reduce the likelihood of injuries and clarify its definition of concussions to improve sideline detection of concussed players.
As Dr. Robert Cantu of BUSM observes, “Young men and women are voluntarily exposing themselves to repetitive brain trauma without full knowledge of the potential consequences, and the rules of the games are designed without an appreciation for the risks carried by the players.” This is a problem that requires the cooperation of all those involved in NCAA football to develop a cohesive solution and promote safety.