Junior Seau Brain Study: CTE Scan Suggests Football Too Risky

Junior Seau, who committed suicide on May 2, 2012, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalothapy (CTE). So did 49 other football players  (35 professional, 9 college, and 6 high school). These findings may raise issues that go beyond the game of football. They may force us to examine our willingness to allow/encourage people to take risks.

CTE is a scary disease. Caused by multiple concussive and subconcussive brain injuries, it progresses from headaches and loss of concentration, to depression and explosiveness, to even greater difficulties making decisions, to dementia. For now, diagnosing CTE requires examining the brain postmortem. One of the reasons recent findings force us to examine our tolerance for risks is how little we know about CTE. 

We cannot say what percentage of pro, or college, or high school football players will develop CTE because families whose relatives behave strangely are far more likely to donate their relative’s brains for study than are other families. We do not know what the minimum number or severity of brain injuries required to trigger CTE in vulnerable individuals is nor why some individuals develop CTE while others with the same history of brain trauma do not.

There are serious and perhaps unavoidable risks. Christopher Nowinski, one of the co-founders of the Boston University Medical School Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, argues that, "If we aren't talking about making relatively dramatic changes to the game in a public way...then people are OK with kids getting a degenerative brain disease from playing football." Jonathan Mahler argues that the risk for CTE is an inherent part of the game of football, one that cannot be fixed by new helmets or new rules.   

If Mahler is right, football fans' enjoyment of the game of football will come at the cost of allowing people to risk permanent brain injury.

The right to take risks is a basic freedom, but that doesn’t necessarily absolve football fans of responsibility for their part in encouraging people to risk permanent brain damage. For most, the question is not do we draw a line but where do we draw the line. Few would argue that we should allow a televised Russian roulette contest, no matter how freely the contestants agreed to participate. One the other hand, some, and in some cases most, people would argue that we cannot reduce all risks to zero. Parents cannot keep their children absolutely safe, and perhaps should not try. Our country recently debated, but did not resolve, the question of whether we should allow people to take the risks of going without health insurance or mandate coverage, though the question of an insurance mandate involved other issues as well. A recent finding, that yearly physicals have little value, suggests that we may be going too far in our pursuit of safety when it comes to illness.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

George Thomas

I have a Ph. D. in psychology and spent my entire nearly my entire professional career in doing research, mostly on mental health issues, and, to a lesser degree, providing mental health services. By training and personality, I am reasonably good at looking at evidence objectively, when the evidence on both sides is not over my head. I enjoy the challenge of trying to find solutions that respect multiple points of view. I am interested in strategies for improving the cost-effectiveness of health care and education, increasing employment, and minimizing global warning. I am open to strategies ranging from increased government involvement to benign neglect for helping people who cannot help themselves without being drawn into helping people who cannot be bothered to help themselves, but I'll err on the side of the former.

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