Owen Thomas was a junior on the football team at U. Penn. Last spring, after a sudden emotional breakdown, he killed himself. His parents let researchers at Boston University autopsy Owen's brain, and what they found was shocking: Owen was the youngest person ever with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a deterioration of the brain that comes from repeated pummels to the head.
CTE was first described in boxers, back in the 1920s. It can only be diagnosed with an autopsy. The disease involves protein buildup in the brain, and can lead over time to memory loss, impulsivity, aggression, depression, and dementia.
More recently, researchers started to find CTE in the brains of retired NFL players who had died of dementia or drug overdoses. Before Owen Thomas, the youngest person ever diagnosed was Chris Henry, the 26-year-old Bengals player who died last year after he jumped or fell from a moving truck during a domestic dispute.
After denying the science for as long as possible (that is, until they were compared to the tobacco industry in a congressional hearing), the NFL finally changed its tune last year. They started funding CTE research and tightened rules about allowing players to return after concussions.
Not that people are necessarily following those rules: In their opening game this Sunday, two players were allowed to stay on the field after suffering concussions. The resulting criticism, at least, shows that the sports world is becoming more aware of the issue.
Neuropsychologist and invented-word enthusiast Adam Shunk thinks football is getting more dangerous: "I think the game is unsafer," he says. "Just look at the physicalness of football now." Neologisms aside, is there a way to reconcile obvious safety concerns with our national desire to see guys knock each other down? If research continues to show that years of tackles can lead to brain deterioration even in young people, what happens next? Will the NFL change the rules? Build fancier helmets? Disallow tackles for kids and teens, whose brains are still forming?
In the longer term, maybe a genetic test can be developed to predict who's most at risk for CTE. After all, repeat concussions clearly don't have the same effect on every player. Or maybe football as it's currently played will go the way of Joe Camel.
If anybody who knows more about football than I do (which is to say, anybody) has thoughts about how the game will change--or whether it will change at all--feel free to share!