Brain Injuries and the National Football League

During his storied career at the University of Wisconsin, Mike Webster was considered to be the Big Ten’s best center. It was no surprise that the Pittsburgh Steelers chose him in the fifth round of the 1974 NFL draft. The six-foot-one, 255-pound player did not disappoint in the ensuing years, becoming the team’s starting center for 150 consecutive games and the Steelers’ offensive captain for nine years. During his career, he played in the Pro Bowl nine times and was given All Pro status for seven. After leaving Pittsburgh and playing for the Kansas City Chiefs for two seasons, Mike Webster announced his retirement in 1990.

Unfortunately, Webster’s numerous accomplishments on the field came at a crushing cost. The countless hits to the head that he had suffered took their toll, resulting in symptoms including depression, dementia, drastic mood swings, memory loss and chronic pain. His final years were bleak, culminating in his death in 2002 at age 50 of a heart attack. Along with his many football honors, Mike Webster also bears a more dubious distinction: He is the first NFL player to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition directly related to repeated blows to the head. Some specialists speculate that during Webster’s 25-year high school, college and professional football career, he experienced the equivalent of approximately 25,000 car crashes.

No one gets CTE from a single concussion; the condition occurs as a result of repeated severe and even more mild impacts that lead to permanent structural changes in the brain. Although studies are still being conducted, scientists are now quite sure that a protein called tau is dislodged when the brain is injured. It sticks together to form large clumps that ultimately begin to interrupt the flow of information throughout the patient’s brain tissues. As of now, CTE can only be conclusively diagnosed after the patient has died although researchers are currently trying to develop reliable tests that can be administered much sooner.

Upon a postmortem examination of Webster’s brain tissue, prominent forensic neuropathologist Bennet Omalu saw the ravages for himself. He recognized that the NFL great’s specimen resembled samples from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia patients as well as boxers with a condition known as “punch-drunk syndrome.” In spite of Omalu’s credibility, the NFL largely ignored his evidence for several years. Their stubborn refusal to recognize the critical nature of the issue did not crack until Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry died at age 26 and was diagnosed with CTE shortly thereafter.

During the past decade, the NFL has begun to change its tune, finally appearing to come to terms with the role it has played in minimizing the effects of brain injury on players. For one thing, it has donated millions of dollars to concussion research. In addition, it has significantly revamped its procedures in an attempt to make the game safer.

In years past, players frequently “shook off” the effects of a hard hit, frequently returning to the game just minutes later. By contrast, today’s protocol requires a team member to be immediately removed from the game if concussion is suspected. If they are diagnosed as having a concussion, they can only return to future games after completing a five-step protocol. This strict set of guidelines requires a period of rest, supervised exercise and examinations by both team and third-party doctors and neurological consultants.

Furthermore, the league has made other modifications across the board. Contact during practice sessions has become more limited. Helmet-to-helmet hits are now banned and severely penalized if they do occur, and officials are looking into transitioning to innovative playing surfaces that cushion the impact to players’ bodies and heads. Researchers continue to study exactly what happens inside the skull after a hard hit so that improvements can continue to be made in the construction of protective helmets.

Organized football has made great strides since CTE was first defined and diagnosed in the early years of the century. The league’s attitude has evolved from outright denial to its current acceptance that the collisions that regularly occur between the massive bodies of highly competitive players can and do cause permanent, irreparable damage. Will this high-impact, violent sport ever be 100 percent safe? Anyone who knows and loves the game would probably agree that no technology or rule change will eliminate the dangers. However, as long as the NFL continues to heed compelling scientific evidence and make intelligent adjustments, it seems likely that concussions and the CTE they can eventually cause will be significantly reduced.

If you or a loved one are suffering from any kind of neurological impairment as the result of a sports injury, you may be entitled to compensation. You should contact the skilled attorneys at McGehee ☆ Chang, Landgraf, Feiler for a free consultation.