CTE in Professional Sports

Understanding the damaged mind

Madison Gallant

It isn’t uncommon for a professional athlete to come home at the end of the day with a few bumps or bruises, but the real trouble comes when head injuries are involved. According to USA Today, the NFL reported 281 cases of concussions in 2017; that is a 15.6% increase in the past five years alone.

Football isn’t the only activity with this issue. It is common for many athletes to sustain serious head injuries in many sports – hockey, soccer, and lacrosse being amongst the most common.

Generally, it’s not a matter of life or death if you happen to become concussed one or two times. It starts to become an issue when there is repeated trauma. Recurring blows to the head have often been shown to lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that slowly consumes and devastates the brain.

What is CTE exactly? To understand this, it helps to know a bit about the background of this diagnosis. There have been reports in the past of previous professional athletes having psychotic breaks for unknown reasons, as well as increased reports of depression and suicidal thoughts or actions. A forensic pathologist by the name of Dr. Bennet Omalu was one of the first to detect the pattern. He had a theory about what was happening to all these football players, but when presenting it to his peers he was often faced with doubt, and even ridicule. At first, he was a bit discouraged when he performed an autopsy on the late Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster. His brain looked normal, no distressing signs. When he decided to take a second glance, he noticed some abnormal proteins in Webster’s brain.

These proteins became known as Tau. They spread throughout the brain, slowly killing all the cells. Tau forms as a result of repetitive hits to the head, hence why it is found in many professional athletes who are constantly at risk for concussions and other head injuries.

Unfortunately, it is currently only visible during an autopsy, meaning it is only possible to be diagnosed with CTE after your death. There is currently no treatment for this disease. It is complicated to study, and there is presently no way to diagnose CTE in a living human.

What might this mean for the future of professional sports? The NFL has sense updated their concussion protocol, and promised to annually review injuries statistics to ensure their rules guarantee relative safety for the players. This may also enforce caution when participating in activities, now that the public is aware of the risks that come with such serious injuries.