A new peer-reviewed article on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) shows that for every four documented cases of the degenerative brain disease one published scientific study exists.
With this statistic in mind, Breitbart Sports searched the archives of the New York Times, which has acted as a de facto press agent for groups seeking to equate football with brain damage, for articles on the disease. Despite the 4th International Conference on Concussion in Sport lamenting “media pressure” stoking parental “fear” on CTE, the Times online archive shows 261 articles, including 21 published in 2015, under a search for “chronic traumatic encephalopathy.” That’s more than four articles for every case of CTE documented in former football players by brain banks and nearly double the number of total CTE cases identified in the recent academic article by Dr. Joseph Maroon and five co-authors.
The phrase appears in such Times articles as “Who Needs Football?,” “Boycott the NFL?,” and “Is It Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl?”
Several of the Times pieces on CTE make claims contradicted by scientific research, such as Frank Bruni’s piece relaying an erroneous statistic of NFL players committing suicide at six times the national average despite the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) showing that men in society actually kill themselves at more than double the rate of pension-vested NFL veterans. Neither Bruni nor the Times have retracted the claim despite Breitbart Sports eliciting a retraction of the false suicide statistic from the group that originated it subsequent to Bruni’s article and NIOSH previously publishing its findings of dramatically reduced suicide rates in more than 3,400 NFL players who competed in the league in five seasons or more over a period stretching from 1959 to 1988.
Ironically, the new research, entitled “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Contact Sports: A Systematic Review of All Reported Pathological Cases,” laments that not one of the existing published articles in academic journals can tell readers the cause or prevalence of the disease that has been associated with contact-sports head trauma because scientists have yet to conduct expensive, time-consuming, and labor-intensive longitudinal or cross-sectional studies. Instead, they have presented anecdotal case studies. Scientists have presented these case studies in some instances first to the press before showing their peers, and in instances outside of academic journals the researchers have suggested a widespread prevalence of the disease in football players despite no study attempting to even prove such a thesis.
“Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Contact Sports” counts 153 documented instances of the disease, far fewer than the number of cases previously believed. Scientists recycling case studies for published research without identifying their subjects as ones previously examined resulted in the exaggerated numbers.
“Although the authors of this review acknowledge the occasional need for re-evaluating former CTE cases in order to further understand CTE findings presented to date,” the article informs, “the high rate of re-reporting cases often without explicit notation of previous documentation has led to an erroneous, inflated impression of the number of CTE cases reported.”
Despite the high ratio of published studies to documented instances of the affliction making CTE cases among the most studied disease victims in human history, the current review notes the complete lack of longitudinal or cross sectional studies, making it impossible to scientifically determine CTE’s determinants or incidence rate in sports or society. The disease’s discovery in Junior Seau, Mike Webster, John Mackey, and other elite football players similarly has led to a perception among the public that the condition afflicts a great percentage of athletes instead of an unknown quantity. Of the tens of millions of American men who have played organized tackle football, for example, researchers have found 63 instances of CTE. Given a lack of randomization in the discovered cases, and the complete ignorance of the disease’s rate in the surrounding society, the 63 case studies tell us much about those 63 players but little about the tens of millions of other players.
Joseph C. Maroon, Robert Winkelman, Jeffrey Bost, Austin Amos, Christina Mathyssek, and Vincent Miele write in the article appearing in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One:
Thus far CTE research has been limited to selective case reports. There are no published systematic studies incorporating both sport and non-sport related head trauma populations. Based on this lack of data, it is currently impossible to determine the incidence of new cases occurring within contact sport. Additionally, overall prevalence of CTE amongst all cases of head trauma cannot be determined at this time. Finally, due to the fragmented data collected in case reports, no conclusions can be drawn about potential risk factors for developing CTE in contact sports.
The study further notes that certain markers indicating CTE occur naturally during the aging process. Given the median age of death for the documented CTE cases occurring between 60 and 69, and 92 percent of people over 60 exhibiting signs of the neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) that help indicate whether one suffers from CTE, difficulties persist in diagnosing the disease even postmortem, which remains the only time upon which to determine the presence of the malady.
The authors conclude that “the reporting of CTE in former professional American football players has led to wide spread speculation far beyond the conclusions that can be drawn based on the current state of CTE research. With CTE research in the early stages and the small number of current cases, there is no credible data with which to establish the incidence or prevalence of CTE in former contact sport participants.”
Despite its monomaniacal interest in CTE, the New York Times has yet to report on the findings of Dr. Maroon’s review of the existing scientific literature.
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.