The Scars From ‘Bell-Ringing’ Football Tackles

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Brains of deceased football players, examined by Dr. Ann McKee.

Credit
VA Boston Healthcare System; CTE Center at Boston University

As tens of thousands of football players, from professionals to peewee league children, head to summer training camps across the nation, there is new and compelling evidence linking the game’s head-snapping tackles to the degenerative brain diseases suffered in the declining years of men who played the game.

A study of the donated brains of 202 men who had played football across various age levels showed that 177 had the graphic scars confirming the diminished powers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a disease caused by repeated blows to the head. The study, in The Journal of the American Medical Association, is the strongest yet tracking the relationship between gridiron concussions and such cognitive ailments as progressive dementia and suicidal depression that football fans have become familiar with in following the troubled lives of retired professional stars.

The study found C.T.E. in all but one of 111 brains donated by National Football League retirees and their concerned families. It also suggested a relationship between the number of years played at the game and the symptoms of C.T.E., a disease that can be examined only posthumously. The brains of 53 college players were also included in the study; 48 showed C.T.E. Even among those who played only at the high school level, three of 14 players showed the telltale scars. “It’s very concerning,” Dr. Ann McKee, a principal author of the study as director of Boston University’s CTE Center, said of the college findings. “That means they most likely retired before the age of 25, and we still are seeing in some of those individuals very severe repercussions.”

These are, of course, self-selected groups, and Dr. McKee said more and broader research is required. But the study, she emphasized, provides “overwhelming circumstantial evidence that C.T.E. is linked to football.” (A 2015 Mayo Clinic study found the disease in the brains of 21 of 66 men who played contact sports — mostly football — but no traces in 198 others who did not play contact games.)

The N.F.L.’s chief health officer finally conceded the brain damage link last year, after years of denial by the league and litigation by…

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