Aggression in the NFL: Who’s to blame?

 Previous actions by star football players like Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens, Ray McDonald of the San Fransisco 49ers and Adrien Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, may be, in fact, a signal of the early stages of CTE.  The murder by and subsequent suicide of Aaron Hernandez might be tied to a very advanced stage of CTE. CTE ( Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) has been a hotly debated subject of interest over the past few years. Unfortunately, there is no medical framework for the accurate diagnosis of such a disease while someone is alive.  Currently, the only current method to diagnose CTE is after death, by analyzing brain tissue and discovering an abnormal protein called TAU protein.  The suicide of Junior Seau – a beloved and passionate football player, who devoted his life to the game and was posthumously diagnosed with CTE, began to shed more light on a growing problem, and subsequently, its implications for the NFL.

A study published in the Journal of Neurology on 9/10/2014 suggests that CTE may start at a very young age. It also points out that when symptoms of CTE emerge at a young age, players  exhibit behavioral and mood problems, whereas symptoms that begin to emerge later in life tend to show up as memory and thinking problems. CTE  is a gradual degeneration of brain function due to repeated head trauma injury consisting of both symptomatic and asymptomatic concussions. Once the initial symptoms fade, months and years later, new symptoms emerge. The onset of new symptoms begins slowly and then builds in severity over time (e.g. concentration, memory, confusion, dizziness and headaches, and then eventually, leading to mood variability,  emotional instability and aggression).

Victims of CTE often turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain and issues, or worse, suicide. Since it is evident that CTE is real, and the end result is brain degeneration and often fatal, self-inflicted tragedies such as suicide, something needs to be done soon to address this growing problem. Without exception, all of these players have been playing football at a high level since they were kids and, as with so many gifted players who show early potential, it is virtually impossible to measure and calculate the amount of head trauma they have all sustained. Perhaps their actions are impulsive and involuntary due to the neurological damage they have sustained. We ask them to strap on a helmet and pads ( for which they are well compensated for)  not only every Sunday ( but training camp and off and pre- season as well) and perform a brutal job that we all love as entertainment. We ask them to turn on the warrior personality on the field and shut if off when they are not on the field.

Can this really be switched on and off ? The question is how many more incidents of  criminal or violent behavior ( domestic abuse, weapons charges, assault or substance abuse) are we going to witness? Are the players to blame or is it the game to blame?

The NFL, up until recently, did not want to acknowledge it had a CTE problem. Big lawsuits ( of which there are many still pending), public outcry and undeniable medical testimony forced the NFL to change its tune and face reality. New concussion protocols were implemented to protect the players after sustaining any head injury. New rules are in place to minimize helmet to helmet contact or using your body as a flying missile. Moreover, performance-enhancing drugs (PED’s) which are now banned have probably not helped to minimize the damage that players have  sustained. Recently, the NFL finally added HGH to the banned substance list. Nonetheless,  players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. The reality is that every time a player collides with another player or his head snaps back during a hit or after he strikes the ground the brain moves inside the cranium and is bruised. This is unavoidable.

As an entertainment business, the multi-billion dollar success of the NFL depends upon consistent delivery of  great thrills to fans — whether or not that involves brutal hits, etc.  This clearly translates into  huge bucks from the full spectrum (game tickets, merchandising, etc). So it is in the interest of the NFL franchises to keep the aggression on the field alive.

Are we paying these athletes too much money and putting them on the proverbial pedestal until they fall from grace and TMZ releases a video of domestic abuse?  That seems apparent, but what is going to change this? The NFL is a hugely profitable business that is THE ultimate destination for young, aspiring athletes. The new research on CTE and the recent aggressive and physically and emotionally abusive behaviors of our star athletes begs questions that finally deserve some attention from the NFL:  Is there a medically-proven direct correlation? Is the game of football safe for our kids to play (for the record, Terry Bradshaw, Brett Favre, both stated they would not allow their kids to play football today)? Is the risk too great for  both adolescent cognitive development and  longer-term development? And what preventative means are we going to put in place to handle what appears to be individuals with damaged brains committing violent (if not criminal) acts?