The NFL now says a link exists between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The league’s most high-profile owner calls that “absurd.”
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones spoke about football and safety in Boca Raton at the annual NFL owners meetings this week. Jeffrey Miller, the league’s senior vice president for health and safety, last week affirmed the premise of Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s question alleging a link between the sport and the debilitating brain disease.
“No, that’s absurd,” Jones told journalists about the alleged connection between football and CTE. “There’s no data that in any way creates a knowledge. There’s no way that you could have made a comment that there is an association and some type of assertion. In most things, you have to back it up by studies.”
Jerry Jones is right. His critics are wrong. This isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of fact that doctors have yet to conduct a study attempting to show causation. Perhaps they will prove what Shakowsky believes what they already have found. But football remains but a decade removed from the first diagnosed case of CTE in a deceased player. Dozens of football CTE cases have emerged since then from a game played by millions. The Fourth Estate, like the Second Estate judging by the congresswoman’s comments, race way ahead of the science.
The benighted-enlightened ridiculing the flamboyant Cowboys owner remain wholly ignorant of the dozens of articles on CTE in medical journals that say what Jones said at the NFL owners meetings: no studies purport to know the prevalence of CTE in contact-sport athletes or the cause of CTE in general because nobody has even attempted to such an endeavor. We have case studies of individual players whose families donated their brains because, in most cases, they exhibited cognitive or mental-health issues late in their lives. Even the Boston University team most zealous in the anti-football crusade admits that these anecdotal cases amount collectively to a “selection bias”—like taking a presidential poll at a Bernie Sanders rally or gleaning the dietary habits of Americans at a vegetarian restaurant.
When the best in sports medicine gathered at the 4th International Conference on Concussion in Sport, they announced this to the world:
Clinicians need to be mindful of the potential for long-term problems in the management of all athletes. However, it was agreed that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) represents a distinct tauopathy with an unknown incidence in athletic populations. It was further agreed that a cause and effect relationship has not as yet been demonstrated between CTE and concussions or exposure to contact sports. At present, the interpretation of causation in the modern CTE case studies should proceed cautiously. It was also recognised that it is important to address the fears of parents/athletes from media pressure related to the possibility of CTE.
A former professional wrestler who wears a lab coat at BU and a coroner masquerading as a brain doctor in a film starring Will Smith loudly say otherwise on screens large and small. Since the conference in Zurich, some scientists have proceeded to gin up that “media pressure.” As for longitudinal or cross-sectional studies that might help us to better understand the causes and prevalence of CTE, they remain an idea rather than a reality.
Jerry Jones is right. Absolutely. Positively. Correct.
“We have for years been involved in trying to make it safer, safer as it pertains to head injury,” Jones explained earlier this week. “We have millions of people that have played this game, have millions of people that are at various ages right now that have no issues at all. None at all.”
That’s an important point. Almost four million American males, and a few thousand females, play tackle football every season. If football caused brain damage the way the game’s critics contend, America would resemble Night of the Living Dead. Millions of fifty-, sixty-, and seventysomething former football players do not walk the streets as zombies. They exhibit no signs of a debilitating brain illness. In fact, in 2011 when the Mayo Clinic looked at hundreds of high school players competing at midcentury they found no real differences in neurodegenerative disease rates between the former athletes and their peers in the band, glee club, and choir.
The authors admit, “We hypothesized that athletes playing football during the decade 1946-1956 would be more likely to develop a neurodegenerative condition later in life than non–football players.” But they concede that the study did not validate the incoming hypothesis. “Our findings suggest that playing American football in high school between 1946 and 1956 did not increase the long-term risk of developing dementia, [Parkinson’s disease], or ALS later in life,” the Mayo Clinic doctors write. “Indeed, the frequency of PD and ALS was lower in the football group than in the band, glee club, and choir group; however, the 2 groups did not differ statistically.”
And for players who competed for a long time at the most elite level, evidence suggesting a link between football and brain damage is not compelling. When the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) looked at every athlete who competed in the National Football League for five or more seasons between 1959 and 1988, they expected about 10 of the 3,500 or so men to have died of brain-related illnesses. Just 12 did. A subsequent study co-authored by a MacArthur Genius Fellow noted that the slightly higher number of deaths from Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s, and other such maladies likely stemmed from the fact that the NFL veterans outlived their peers in society, making them more susceptible to such diseases as they advanced in age.
That NIOSH study, conducted at the behest of the players’ union because of a widespread belief that football shaved years off one’s life expectancy, stands as the best evidence of the wisdom of Jerry Jones’ advice to draw conclusions after scientists conduct studies. Rebutting conventional wisdom, the NIOSH research found better health outcomes for players versus the men watching them on the couch with regard to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, respiratory illness, and 10 of the remaining 13 killers examined. Whereas the scientists discovered deaths in 18 percent of the peer group, they found deaths in only 10 percent of the former NFL players. Football saves lives.
When I spoke to one of the NIOSH scientists co-authoring the study, he called the players a “superman cohort.” In other words, guys who run and wrestle for two hours every fall day, train on the track and in the weight room the rest of the year, obsess over what they put in their bodies and what they won’t, and receive access to top-notch medical care tend to live longer than guys who don’t. Duh.
Perhaps equally interesting is what the comprehensive study by the federal government said about football and suicide. Whereas articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Time all maintained that NFL players kill themselves at six times the societal rate, the data showed that the peer group’s rate of killing themselves actually more than doubled the rate of the football players. When Breitbart Sports contacted the originator of the elevated suicide statistic, the group conceded that no such study existed and retracted the claim.
Despite the federal government thoroughly debunking two widespread myths about NFL players—that they die young and kill themselves at elevated rates—journalists still repeat these falsehoods as fact. Beyond this, journalists continues to characterize speculation as science when it comes to CTE.
Charlie Brown remains far from alone in falling for tricks when it comes to football.
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.