The National Football League has survived more public relations crises in the past year than most multi-billion dollar organizations endure in a decade. Yet the greatest existential threat to the NFL - if not to the existence of football itself - still remains Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or “CTE.”
As former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau’s documented struggle with CTE demonstrated, the presentation of symptoms that occurs in most stricken with the disease are not always readily apparent. Concussions and sub-concussive impacts on the brain cause the rapid brain decay that is a precursor to CTE. Eventually, the lobes of the brain blacken and loose density—causing depression, early on-set dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and eventual death.
Terrifyingly, the vast prevalence of the disease may not have been known until fairly recently. Just this year, Boston University found the existence of CTE in the brains of 96% of 91 tested subjects, all of whom played football at some organized level. When the disease was first discovered in 2002 in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster by Dr. Bennet Omalu, the NFL initially tried to limit the fallout from the discovery. According to Omalu, “NFL doctors told me that if 10% of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.”