By Johnny O’Brien
During Super Bowl LIV, a moment of silence was taken by NFL officials and fans to commemorate players who have suffered from brain-related injuries such as concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy during the 100-year anniversary of the NFL.
CTE is a degenerative brain disease that can lead to memory loss, depression and dementia; and has become more prevalent in recent years in sports with numerous cases surfacing in football since the 1970s according to the Netflix documentary “A Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez.”
The first case studied was that of center Mike Webster, a part of the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty in the 1970s. After dying of a heart attack in 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu studied Webster’s brain for what would be the first case of CTE in a continuous observation for medical doctors for years to come.
A study from the medical press published in 2017 cites as many as 202 deceased former football players showed evidence of brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head across the NFL, collegiate teams and even high school teams. One hundred seventy-seven of those players had confirmed cases of CTE. One hundred ten of the 111 NFL players that have donated their brains to research have confirmed cases of CTE, a trend upwards of 99 percent.
According to psychologists, CTE occurs in players with repeated hits to the head, no matter the impact of the hit, big or small. Based on information from the Centers for Disease Control, the effects of these hits have been linked to specific changes in brain chemistry, with signs of personality change, short term memory and aggression being exhibited by players with the disease.
Linebacker Junior Seau of the San Diego Chargers was one player who suffered from CTE. In May of 2012, he committed suicide after showing symptoms of mood swings, irrationality, forgetfulness, insomnia and depression according to the San Diego Chargers team doctor David Chao.
According to “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez,” in the summer of 2013, Hernandez was convicted for the murder of family friend Odin Lloyd.
Hernandez later hanged himself in his cell in 2017 and his family donated his brain to CTE research. Boston University’s Alzheimer specialist Dr. Ann McKee has studied more brains of former contact athletes than anyone in the world. By her diagnosis, Hernandez’s disease at the age of 27 was highly advanced.
“I can say that this is substantial damage that undoubtedly took years to develop,” McKee said. “This did not develop acutely, as the changes in his brain have been evolving maybe even as long as a decade.”
With recent players like Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly retiring due to injuries related to concussions, Florida Tech football players haven’t wavered in being skeptical in continuing to play a game they love.
“I have no fear when it comes to CTE and the sport of football, and I’ll allow my children to play whatever sport they want, including football,” said sophomore Payton Cleveland, a Florida Tech offensive tackle.
Cleveland recognizes that all hits to the head are different, with a lot of emphasis being put on taking the head out of the game. Never being diagnosed with a concussion himself, Cleveland admits that he has taken a hit to the head but never felt any serious pain lasting longer than a few seconds.
Florida Tech psychology professor Frank Webbe has directed the Concussion Management Program at Florida Tech since its inception 10 years ago. Webbe currently serves as treasurer of the Sports Neuropsychology Society, which includes members who work with the NFL, NHL and MLB.
Webbe says that while CTE articles have been greatly promoted in national media, there is still little relative information about who might fall prey to the disorder. “It seems likely that an accumulation of insults to the brain may be the major environmental factor that brings on the disorder,” Webbe said.
Webbe believes with good concussion management programs, concussed players can be removed from play until their cognitive, emotional, sleep and physical symptoms have resolved, and cognitive and balance testing has confirmed that they have recovered.
“We prefer, in fact, to be conservative, so that every student who has suffered a concussion is not returned to sports activity until all vestiges of the injury have resolved,” Webbe said. Upon when and if team doctors find that a student-athlete is taking a long time to recover—usually after a history of multiple concussions—team doctors recommend that they retire from play.
Alike to Cleveland, Florida Tech red-shirt freshman quarterback Michael DiLiello isn’t exactly discouraged by players retiring early.
“With younger players retiring early, I get that it might shake some people up who don’t play, but it’s just a sad side effect of the game for certain players.”