6 November 2018
“He went from being a devoted and loving father and husband to someone who felt like a ghost in our home.” This grim statement made by, Emily Kelly, highlights the negative effects that have surfaced associated with the National Football League (NFL) recently. In her article with The New York Times, Kelly, also goes on to say, “He was suffering deeply and barely surviving. My love and affection seemed to offer no comfort or solace. I felt helpless.” In both these statements, Kelly, is writing about her husband, Rob Kelly, who is a former NFL player. All evidence points toward Rob suffering through the symptoms of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative brain disease that is ripping apart families of ex NFL players, but more importantly, it is tearing apart their minds too. Rob played in the NFL for only five years, but even this proved to be detrimental. Precautions and regulations must be put in place to help decrease the rising rate of former NFL players being diagnosed with CTE. Therefore, the career length within the NFL should be limited to only four years. A four-year limit accommodates for all ends of the spectrum and accounts for all arguments that could be brought to attention. Many argue that players play at their own risk, whereas others advocate for a full ban of the NFL.
As pointed out above, CTE is a neurodegenerative brain disease, which can be defined as the gradual decrease of functionality and structure of neurons. This can also potentially ultimately result in the death of a neuron (Wikipedia). It was formally known as “punch drunk syndrome” when it was first described in 1928 by Dr. Harrison Martland (What is CTE?). Following this, the disease was not closely examined until 2005. In the seventy-seven-year time period from 1928-2005 there were less than fifty confirmed cases found in boxers and other victims of head trauma (What is CTE?). The disease was further researched in 2005 when Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic anthropologist, performed an autopsy on Mike Webster (What is CTE?). Webster was a former NFL stand-out center for the Pittsburg Steelers and earned the nickname “Iron Mike” during his time. He passed away prematurely at age fifty due to a heart attack. Prior to death, Webster’s mental state started to decline, and he was displaying very odd mannered behavior (Gordon). This erratic behavior sparked Omalu’s suspicion which ultimately led to him dissecting the brain further than usual during the autopsy (Omalu). Upon first inspection, Webster appeared aged and wrinkled, a man far beyond the age of fifty (Omalu). On the surface there were no external injuries, however, Webster embodied a structurally healthy male (Omalu). Once Omalu proceeded to open the skull, his findings raised even more suspicion. Omalu’s knowledge and experience led him to believe that the brain of Mike Webster would be akin to a brain damaged with Alzheimer’s- atrophy in distinct areas, shriveling, an ugly brain (Omalu). However, Webster’s brain paralleled a normal brain that had no resemblance of any Alzheimer’s like features. Omalu decided to more examination on the brain; he wanted to tell Mike Webster’s story, the story of how he was a victim of American football. After months spent fearing the unknown and countless hours filled with research, Omalu had discovered something. With the help of, Dr. Hamilton, from the University of Pittsburg, and renowned neurologist, Dr. DeKosky, who is also the dean of the University of Virginia Medical School; Omalu and his peers published this new disease which coined the name Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (Omalu). The findings were published in a NFL-endorsed neurosurgery journal, Omalu believed that the NFL would be pleased with his findings, he viewed it as valuable information that could be used to make the game safer. The NFL however, attacked Omalu and looked to tarnish his reputation, they demand that he retract the publications and also accused him of fraud (Omalu). Thus, proving that the NFL was trying to hide Omalu’s findings. Fearful of what harm it could cause them and knowledge of the relationship between football and CTE, the NFL quickly publicly squandered to the conclusion that CTE simply did not exist (Omalu). It is very evident, and proof has highlighted that the NFL is dangerous and there are undoubtedly head trauma issues associated with the game.
So, what exactly is CTE? When dissecting the physiology of CTE, it is important to first understand what neurons are. Neurons can be viewed as the basic building blocks of the brain (The Science of CTE). Every neuron is structurally formatted with three parts: the cell body, axon, and axon terminal. The axon is the most important part in relation to CTE and can be compared to a wire in an electrical circuit (The Science of CTE). Communication between neurons is conducted by electrical signals being sent down the very long and skinny axons and then ultimately off to adjacent cells. The problem that arises is the shape of the axon, its long, skinny, spindly shape is beneficiary in reaching distant cells throughout different areas of the brain. However, the axon is very weak, generally the weakest part of a neuron. During a concussion the axon is highly susceptible to breaking; which in turn leads to a greater degree of difficulty for cells to distribute chemicals and materials properly to other areas of the cell (The Science of CTE). The materials needed for a cell to function are produced within the cell body and a lot of these materials is used along the axon and axon terminal (The Science of CTE). Everything is shipped to it’s a proper location within a cell via a transportation system composed of tiny tubes called microtubules. Microtubules line the length of a cell, aiding in the transportation of materials from one end to the other. As noted earlier the axon can be compared to a wire in an electrical circuit, to continue on with this comparison, a microtubule can be compared to a single strand of hair (The Science of CTE). With microtubules being so small, they are prone to damage when sustaining a concussion and also when sustaining smaller sub-concussive impacts (The Science of CTE). To try to aid in the structural strength of microtubules, a special protein tau sticks to them on the outside. This special protein however can be the deciding factor in the formation of CTE. When a microtubule breaks down tau can move freely within the cell. Tau proteins can now clump together by changing shape in a process called phosphorylation. These clumps then begin to metastasize to surrounding areas of the brain and then start to work independently. At this point, the clumps are continuing to grow and move throughout the body in a process known as prion spread (The Science of CTE). The tau proteins spread in a slow manner that is specific to CTE. In CTE, symptoms generally do not appear until eight-ten years after one’s professional career and scientists believe that this slow spreading of tau may be one contributing factor to this (The Science of CTE).
Gordon, Meryl. “Before ‘Concussion’: Mike Webster’s Shattered Life.” Reader’s Digest, Reader’s Digest, 7 June 2017, www.rd.com/health/conditions/mike-webster-brain-injury/.
“The FRONTLINE Interview: Dr. Bennet Omalu – League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/sports/league-of-denial/the-frontline-interview-dr-bennet-omalu/.
“The Science of CTE.” Concussion Legacy Foundation, 6 Nov. 2018, concussionfoundation.org/CTE-resources/science-of-CTE.
“What Is CTE?” Concussion Legacy Foundation, 6 Nov. 2018, concussionfoundation.org/CTE-resources/what-is-CTE.