Hitting CTE Head-On

If you’ve ever seen Looney Tunes, you wouldn’t be unlikely to feel a sense of immortality creep upon you as you became habituated to the countless anvils that crushed Wile E. Coyote in his futile pursuits of the ever-elusive Road Runner. No matter what fell upon him from the heavens, Coyote merely suffered some minor swelling of his cranium, but most definitely not enough to handicap him from going at it again. In fact, the more he endeavored, the wittier Coyote’s ploys appeared! But I’m not blaming cartoonists for the sullen neurological disorders that are arising in retired NFL players. I’m blaming the game itself.

Former players have launched a head-on collision with the NFL, claiming that the organization failed to warn them of the potentially lifelong brain damage and cognitive impairments that are becoming all too typical in the sport.

I can’t help but draw parallels to the lawsuits against Big Tobacco over a plaintiff’s similar reasoning: the activity that I’m about to partake is implicitly and logically known to be deleterious to my health, but because no one explicitly told me this, it’s not my fault.

Maybe you can understand this blame game as a result of our litigation-happy culture that encourages us to commit bad faith so that we feel exonerated from whatever misfortunes befall us. Regardless of the impetus behind these lawsuits, we need to maturely recognize that it is the very nature of the beast that is football to cause long-term neurological disorders.

But do you know what really grinds my gears? It’s the idea of blaming the NFL for not warning players against something that nobody knew at the time was that big of a deal. People have this outlandish idea that scientists, in all their eminence, have almost complete mastery of the inner workings of the human brain. But this notion couldn’t be farther from the truth!

I can’t tell you how many neurobiology dogmas I’ve read in older textbooks that were taken as divine during their time but are now dismissed as plain silly. Neuroscience is a field in which theories are constantly broken down and rebuilt.

We are indeed putting the pieces together but we’re still in an infantile stage, especially when it comes to the effects of concussions. Studying functional and anatomical damage from concussions is a subfield that has only recently gained momentum in the last 20 years.

I genuinely believe that the NFL is taking necessary and proactive steps in funding research into concussions. But during the seasons of many former NFL players that are suing, we were still living like Coyote, obliviously believing that the brain has the fully regenerative abilities of a twisted ankle.

Long-term research into concussions had not yet yielded the finding that even one or two concussions are sufficient to induce chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), an incurable disease that can cause a host of problems like dementia, depression and suicidal behavior.

Now, as hopeless and grim a portrait of the reality of contact sports that I’ve just painted, don’t think that I’m advocating for the abolishment of the NFL or football.

In addition to being an entrenched part of our American culture, football and other contact sports, in my opinion, are phenomenal ways of taking out our aggression and frustration in a healthy manner (well, not completely). As football is one of America’s most ubiquitously played sports and that longevity is on the rise, the numerous lifelong impairments threatening to plague many former players of all levels is daunting and unsustainable. As soon as we realize this fact, the sooner we’ll be able to refine the rules of the game to make it more brain friendly.

Faisal Chaabani is a fifth-year neurobiology major. He can be reached at fchaaban@uci.edu.