National Football League or Not For Long? How CTE has Threatened Professional Football as We Know It

Arjun Jaswal, Sports Section Associate Editor

White 80! White 80! Set HIKE! It’s a cold, windy December day in Pittsburgh, and Steelers center Mike Webster was doing what he usually did on Sundays in the winter, snapping footballs and bashing the crown of his helmet against opposing defensive lines while trying to block for star QB Terry Bradshaw. From 1974 to 1990, Webster played in 263 games (including postseason), making the Pro Bowl on nine separate occasions, and winning the Super Bowl four times. After he left the football field, however, Webster became a different person. He became lethargic, amnesic, and short-tempered. Sometimes he wandered around Pittsburgh, sleeping under bridges and in his truck. He would purchase guns and walk up to people saying “Kill’em! I’m gonna kill’em!” One time, he even urinated in the oven at his house. When Webster passed away from a heart attack at the age of 50 in 2002, it never occurred to anyone that his odd behavior had to do with football. People thought that maybe he just had a tough time figuring out what to do with his life once he retired. Soon they would learn that throughout his 25 years of playing football, Webster suffered the equivalent brain damage of being in 25,000 different car accidents.

A picture of Webster, considered by many to be the greatest center in NFL history, on the Steelers. Photo from Mike Webster. 

Webster was discovered to have suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (commonly known as CTE), a degenerative brain disease stemming from repeated brain trauma, which led to his life spiraling in the wrong direction once he was out of the NFL. The signs of dementia, confusion, aggression, depression, and impaired judgment observed in those with CTE were clearly present in Webster during his post-NFL days. 

While Webster was the first NFL player who was discovered to have CTE when he was diagnosed with the disease by Dr. Bennet Omalu following his autopsy in 2002, plenty of others would follow. Former New England Patriots tight end and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez was diagnosed with CTE after he committed suicide. Jovan Belcher, once a Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, was found to have CTE after he killed his girlfriend and then drove to the Chiefs practice facility and killed himself in front of his coaches. Just recently, on December 14th, it was announced that Phillip Adams, a former San Francisco 49ers cornerback who murdered 6 people before ultimately killing himself in April 2021, had severe CTE as well. The list does not end here; there are plenty more frightening stories. In fact, in a 2017 study done by the Boston University School of Medicine, 110 of 111 examined brains of former deceased NFL players had demonstrated signs of CTE in one way or the other. 

So how exactly does football cause CTE? To put it as simply as possible, oftentimes when a football player gets hit in the head, tiny tubes in the brain called microtubules, which help with the transit of signals within a neuron, become structurally damaged. When this happens, a protein called tau is used to add support to the fragile, damaged, microtubules; however, when too many microtubules are damaged/broken, an overload of tau is used, and it starts to clump and spread, ultimately killing brain cells. This is what eventually causes all the cognitive effects of CTE.

 An image of a healthy brain vs. a brain with CTE. Photo from Wikipedia. 

Is there any way that CTE can be stopped? Well, the brutal nature of football prevents this from completely happening. As long as there are hits in football, the brain will get damaged. However, growing concern for the brains of these football players has resulted in light rule changes by the NFL, and has influenced some companies to develop safer helmets.  This has been somewhat successful, as there have been some helmet models which have been proven to be significantly safer for the brain, such as the new Vicis Zero2. With that said, the majority of NFL players still opt for more traditional models because they look better.  The NFL can take the initiative and force players to wear only the very safest helmet model determined by their very own annual laboratory testing, but they choose against protecting their own players.

At the same time, everyone also must remember that CTE has only been discovered recently in football players, and it can only be found through a deep-tissue examination of the brain during an autopsy, which families must consent to. This means that we only have a limited sample size. It is only a matter of time before fan-favorites of recent generations are diagnosed with it as well, with many of them exhibiting potential symptoms of CTE already, such as Everson Griffen, Jay Cutler, and Brett Favre.

Ultimately, the reality is that CTE has not only destroyed the lives of many football players, but it has also caused harm and even taken some lives of innocent people around them, as seen in the cases of Hernandez, Belcher, and Adams. CTE is not going to go away any time soon either, especially with the lack of concern for player health that the NFL has always had. As more and more NFL players pass away, more cases will be discovered. One day it may even come to a point where a drastic, game-changing measure will have to be taken in order to save football, as an influx of CTE cases are discovered. But for now, the next time you turn on the TV, switch the channel to FOX, and watch the Eagles game, just remember that many of the players you watch will be suffering from a life-threatening brain disease years down the road.