For the NFL to concede – for the first time publicly – that there is a link between American football and the devastating brain disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is, in all essence of the expression, a game changer.
After years of steadfast denial, the league has finally come to its senses. Addressing this link is a big step in the right direction, and at the same time, a fatal blow for the sport.
The link is not news to anyone who has followed the NFL and their continuing concussion crisis.
For years, fans have watched as former players have been reduced to shells of themselves by brain disease. They have read their obituaries. They have read excerpts from their suicide notes.
But that did not lessen the shock when Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president of health and safety, spoke about it during a US Congressional round table on Monday.
“The answer to that question,” Miller said when US representative Jan Schakowsky asked if there was a link between football and degenerative brain diseases, “is certainly yes.”
With those eight words, Miller reversed the NFL’s long-established position that football played no part in the suicides of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson. Or the dementia of Hall of Famers Mike Webster and John Mackey. Or the quiet suffering of hundreds of other former players and their families. Or the thousands of future football players who today are learning the game at their elementary school or local community centre.
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Miller referenced the work of Boston University neuropathologist Dr Ann McKee, who has found CTE in the brains of 90 of the 94 former professional football players she studied after their death.
But this acknowledgement goes beyond the professional gridiron and the reverberations should inevitably trickle down.
Of the 55 college players’ brains McKee has studied, 45 had CTE. Six of 26 high schoolers had it, too. Those are startling numbers that have been ignored by the NFL for too long.
And with no cure for CTE, no idea how many hits cause it and no way to even diagnose it without an autopsy, parents are terrified. Numbers in youth football have declined over the past few years, and some high schools have cut their programs.
Others in the sports world, including parents of young athletes, "have trusted the NFL, and the NFL was on the fence for a long time," Chris Nowinski, a co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, told The New York Times. "We now have a significant confirmation from the NFL and that could have ripple effects around football and sports."
For more than a decade, the NFL was immune to all of it, with ratings and revenues climbing higher every year. Look ahead a few years, though, and the writing is on the wall. The league thrives because there is an endless supply of talent, but what if that pipeline dries up?
"Right now, I wouldn't be surprised if football isn't around in 20, 25 years," Antwaan Randle El, who won a Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers, told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Randle El retired ‘early’ from football in 2010 but now, at the age of 36, he said he has trouble walking down the stairs and suffers from memory loss.
“The kids are getting bigger and faster, so the concussions, the severe spinal cord injuries, are only going to get worse,” he said.
“There’s no correcting it. There’s no helmet that’s going to correct it. There’s no teaching that’s going to correct it. It just comes down to it’s a physically violent game. Football players are in a car wreck every week.”
It’s a scary thought, but this could be the beginning of the end for football. Miller’s statement, and the timing of it, just proves that the NFL has been trying to delay their demise for as long as possible.
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