When Noah Smith recently published his excellent column “Too Many Americans Live in a Mental Fog,” I suggested one cause of U.S. cognitive impairment I believe he overlooked. The Bloomberg View writer noted that poverty, lead poisoning and drugs are key factors in our stupor, all certainly true, but I wonder if years of playing tackle football may also be causing mass brain-related decline in men.
That question extends far beyond the few who make it to the NFL since “1.23 million youth ages 6-12 played tackle football in 2015.” The issue has been raised again this week after a chilling study of CTE in football players in which 110 of 111 former pros were found to have the degenerative disease and the subsequent announcement by offensive lineman/mathematician John Urschel that he was retiring early–though it may be later than he thinks.
Two excerpts follow.
From Joe Ward, Josh Williams and Sam Manchester’s NYT piece:
Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist, has examined the brains of 202 deceased football players. A broad survey of her findings was published on Tuesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Of the 202 players, 111 of them played in the N.F.L. — and 110 of those were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., the degenerative disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.
C.T.E. causes myriad symptoms, including memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia. The problems can arise years after the blows to the head have stopped. …
In addition to the 111 brains from those who played in the N.F.L., researchers also examined brains from the Canadian Football League, semi-professional players, college players and high school players. Of the 202 brains studied, 87 percent were found to have C.T.E. The study found that the high school players had mild cases, while college and professional players showed more severe effects. But even those with mild cases exhibited cognitive, mood and behavioral symptoms.
There is still a lot to learn about C.T.E. Who gets it, who doesn’t, and why? Can anything be done to stop the degeneration once it begins? How many blows to the head, and at what levels, must occur for C.T.E. to take hold?
“It is no longer debatable whether or not there is a problem in football — there is a problem,” Dr. McKee said.•
The opening of Ken Belson’s NYT article:
One of the N.F.L.’s smartest players did the math and decided to retire after just three years in the league.
John Urschel, an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens who received much publicity for his off-season pursuit of a doctorate in math at M.I.T., told the team on Thursday that he was hanging up his cleats at 26.
Urschel’s agent, Jim Ivler, said Urschel was overwhelmed with interview requests but would not be speaking to the news media. On Twitter, Urschel wrote that “there is no big story here” and that the decision to retire was not an easy one to make, but “it was the right one for me.”
He added that he planned to return to school full time in the fall, “to take courses that are only offered in the fall semester” and spend time with his fiancée, who is expecting their first child in December.
Urschel’s decision came two days after the release of a study in which all but one of 111 brains of former N.F.L. players showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated hits to the head.
The Baltimore Sun and ESPN, citing anonymous sources with the Ravens, said his retirement was related to the study.
Urschel, who had spoken about balancing concerns about the safety of the game and his love for it, left before the team’s first full practice of the coming season.•