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Big Media’s New Take on the Big Game

BU concussion research alters Super Bowl perspective

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Christopher Nowinski wrestled for WWE for two years before retiring with postconcussion syndrome. Today, Nowinski is a codirector of BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which studies the brains of deceased athletes for signs of the degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Photo courtesy of Christopher Nowinski

Seeing a football story on the cover of Time magazine this week is not surprising — more than 90 million people will watch the Indianapolis Colts battle the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV on Sunday.  

But Time’s story is no paean to the extravaganza or to the National Football League. The cover image shows a deflated, torn football, with the headline: “The Most Dangerous Game.” Time describes the Super Bowl as lying at the end of a path “strewn with the broken bodies and damaged brains that result when highly motivated, superbly conditioned athletes collide violently in pursuit of glory.”

Many media outlets are offering hard looks at America’s most popular game, in large part because of research by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University’s School of Medicine, a collaboration between BU neurologists and the Sports Legacy Institute, cofounded by former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler Christopher Nowinski and leading authority on concussions Robert Cantu, two of the CSTE’s four codirectors.

The research, at first disputed by NFL spokespeople, now is universally accepted: NFL players under 50 years old have a rate of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive, degenerative disease associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoid and aggressive behavior, depression, dementia, and parkinsonism, 19 times greater than average.

The center first made headlines last year when researchers found evidence of CTE in the brains of several deceased football players with a history of repeated concussions.

In September, three active NFL football players — Pro Bowlers Lofa Tatupu of the Seattle Seahawks, Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens, and Sean Morey of the Arizona Cardinals — agreed to donate to the CSTE Brain Donation Registry, allowing researchers to analyze their brains after death. And earlier this week, CSTE announced that one active and 18 retired NFL players have pledged to join its registry.

Among the newest donors are current Chicago Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, Hall of Famer Mike Haynes, Pro Bowlers Zach Thomas, Kyle Turley, and Conrad Dobler, NFL Players Association senior regional director Jason Belser, Super Bowl Champion Don Hasselbeck, Keith Krepfle, and Jack Thompson. In addition, Sylvia Mackey, wife of John Mackey, a Hall of Fame Baltimore Colts tight end suffering from dementia, has pledged to donate Mackey’s brain. These players swelled the ranks of the CSTE registry to more than 250 current or former athletes, including 60 retired NFL players.

“The only way we will truly understand the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma in football is to study a large group of athletes throughout their lives and then examine their brains following death,” says Robert Stern, a MED associate professor of neurology and a CSTE codirector. “These athletes are to be commended for their commitment and courage.”

The research prompted the House Judiciary Committee to hold two hearings on head injuries in the NFL in recent months, and CSTE codirectors Ann McKee, a MED associate professor of neurology and pathology, Cantu, and Nowinski testified. In response, the NFL has changed its official policy for treating concussions: the league now requires an independent neurological specialist to determine when a concussed athlete can return to play and mandates that any player with symptoms of a concussion cannot return the same day. The NFL has also pledged to run public service announcements during games about the danger of concussions, and has promised to support the CSTE’s ongoing research.

The first of those public service announcements appeared during NFL broadcasts late this season; perhaps, amid the most creative and expensive ads that Madison Avenue can invent, another will appear Sunday afternoon.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.

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