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With the 2019 football season approaching, the NFL and teams have been preparing the athletes with preseason practices, games and equipment; notably, helmets. Antonio Brown, Oakland Raiders wide receiver made news for refusing to change his helmet he’d worn for the last nine years of his career, even threatening to retire despite the NFL banning the model and make of his helmet (Breech, 2019). The NFL began banning helmets for the 2018 season on the basis of which helmets best reduced “head impact severity” (NFL, 2019). This was done primarily as a method to reduce conussive injuries within the NFL, which have been shown to result in a build up of tau protein in the brain, leaving many football players with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that causes severe changes in mood and behavior, and linked to depression and suicide in many football players. 

CTE is largely a result of repeated traumatic brain injury, that leads to the build up of tau protein, the same precursor to Alzehimers (Dickstein et al, 2016). Effects of CTE and Alhzeimer’s overlap, but the distribution of tau protein results in key differences between the two, with people suffering from CTE often suffering from symptoms such as irritability, emotional lability, aggression, impulsivity, suicidal tendencies and substance abuse (Dickensein et al, 2016). The disease affects players beyond the NFL, in 2010 Owen Thomas, a lineman at the University of Pennsylvania, hanged himself in a “sudden emotional collapse” (Schwarz, 2010), Thomas was the youngest amateur player in which early stages of CTE was detected, but since then more young highschool and college players have died in relation to the symptoms of CTE (Schwartz, 2010). Onset CTE detection has proved incredibly difficult, as all the symptoms are behavior related and can only be detected post-mortem (Dickstein et al, 2016). Since most of the research done on CTE is post-mortem, little is known about the in-vivo as standard neuroimaging reveals no significant differences and behavioral symptoms reported by family members often overlap with other neurodegenerative diseases (Dickstein et. al, 2016).  

This has presented a serious issue in terms of how to accurately deal with CTE. The NFL has presented helmet guidelines to reduce concussions and the medical research has allowed for a more educated populace, but little has actually changed with the treatment of CTE both medically and socially. Recently, however, the Boston University CTE center recently conducted a study using a positron-emission tomography (PET) scan on 26 former NFL players and found an elevated level of florbetapir SUVR (a measure of the ratio of radioactivity) in the retired NFL players compared to the control subjects (Stern et al., 2019). This directly correlated to former NFL players, having higher tau protein buildup due to traumatic brain injury (Stern et. al, 2019). This medical breakthrough could mean a lot for understanding the biomarkers of CTE and even Alzheimers.

With the changes in our scientific understanding of the disease comes greater social pressure to understand the effects of contact sports. A cornerstone of Amrerican culture and a multi-billion dollar industry, the NFL has not done enough to protect its athletes. While helmet banning has promised a safer beginning, more research and education is important to truly understand the precedent that new CTE information brings about. Whether that be more limitations on amateur football or at a professional level (compensation) has yet to be defined. 

Works Cited


(2019). Retrieved from

Breech, J. (2019, August 15). Antonio Brown reportedly says he'd retire over helmet: Here's why it's now banned by the NFL. Retrieved from

Breech, J. (2019, August 15). Antonio Brown reportedly says he'd retire over helmet: Here's why it's now banned by the NFL. Retrieved from

Buell, S. (2019, April 11). Finding CTE in Living People? BU Just Got Closer to Doing It. Retrieved from

(2018, June 29). Burden of Proof: Malcom Gladwell on Football & CTE. Retrieved from

Charles, S., & M.d. (2019, April 11). Brain scans on former NFL players detect abnormal proteins found in CTE. Retrieved from

Schwarz, A. (2010, September 13). Suicide Reveals Signs of a Disease Seen in N.F.L. Retrieved from

Stern, R. A., Alder, C. H., & Chen, K. (2019). Tau Positron-Emission Tomography in Former National Football League Players. The New England Journal of Medicine. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1900757