Perhaps it’s the record numbers of troops returning home from the Middle East with traumatic brain injuries. Or maybe it’s the tragic TBI-related deaths and injuries of young athletes, such as University of Pennsylvania football player Owen Thomas, who took his own life last spring while dealing with his debilitating symptoms of his condition. Whatever the reasons, traumatic brain injury awareness is growing across the country, and an unprecedented level of attention has fallen upon head trauma in football and other aggressive contact sports.
With football season in full swing from high school and college campuses to the NFL, researchers are uncovering some upsetting links between America’s favorite sport and head injuries.
In Owen Thomas’ case, family, friends, and teammates were so stunned about the uncharacteristic nature of the popular player’s suicide, that a brain autopsy was ordered. The analysis revealed that Thomas had chromic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a brain injury caused by repeated concussions and other head trauma that often leads to depression and impulsive behavior.
CTE has also been found in 21 NFL players, including former Philadelphia Eagles player Andre Waters, who in 2006 also committed suicide. Water made his mark in professional football as an aggressive player known for his fierce tackling and hitting.
Earlier this month, Eagles linebacker Stewart Bradley received a head injury during play and collapsed. He struggled to get up only to collapse again moments later. Bradley returned to the game after a few minutes but was quickly removed from play and remains on the sidelines.
According to a CBS report, today’s football helmets and their “promise of better protection” may be giving players a false sense of security, encouraging them to play more aggressively and take more and greater risks.
Dr. Hunt Batjer of Northwestern University who serves as the co-chair of the NFL’s brain, head and neck medical committee, told CBS that “When two helmets hit each other at moment zero, they stop. They don’t break. The brain continues to move.”
Likewise, football analyst and former coach Beano Cook told CBS he believes today’s football players might be better off wearing the old leather helmets players wore many decades ago.
“Many times players don’t tackle anymore,” Cook told CBS. “They just go head first into some player.”
Medical professionals are becoming more aware of just how dangerous concussions are, especially if they occur repeatedly over time, but how quickly that awareness translates into changes on the football field remains to be seen.