New England Patriots fans were sad when Rob Gronkowski announced on Instagram over the weekend that he was retiring from the NFL at age 29.
Ann McKee felt a different emotion. “I was relieved,” she says. McKee, a School of Medicine professor of neurology and pathology and director of BU’s CTE Center, has been studying the impact of concussions on the brain for over a decade. Her lab, which has grown to nearly 30 people, has almost 700 brains to study, donated by those who have died or their families.
The team’s work on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has led to profound discussions about the lasting impact of concussions (and repetitive, low-level hits to the head) on the brain and the dangers of football to both children and adults, and has found that CTE is associated with dementia, mood changes, and aggression and that it particularly afflicts many athletes and soldiers.
So when one of the NFL’s biggest stars, a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, decided to hang up his cleats and walk away from the game before turning 30, BU Today asked McKee for her take on it. Gronkowski is only the latest among a growing number of NFL athletes who have decided to retire while in their prime. McKee says she’s become close to another, Chris Borland, who retired from the San Francisco 49ers in 2014, after just one stellar year in the league, and has spoken out about his decision and his concern for other players and military veterans who might have CTE.
Although Gronk had suffered a slew of leg, arm, back, and head injuries over the years, including several concussions, his Instagram post still caught fans off guard: “It’s time to move forward and move forward with a big smile knowing that the New England Patriots Organization, Pats Nation, and all my fans will be truly a big part of my heart for the rest of my life.”
BU Today: Were you surprised when you heard Rob Gronkowski announce he was retiring?
McKee: I was relieved. The hardest thing for me is to follow these players over the years and see them struggle.
What do you make of the decision?
Reading between the lines about Rob Gronkowski, he’s had big hits. He’s read the headlines. He has said playing football abuses the body and abuses the brain. I’m sure he thinks, these will catch up with me if I don’t put an end to it.
I think he’s smart player. I know he’s a goofball, but he’s intelligent. I think he does recognize that the brain is a very precious part of you, and you don’t get a second chance with it.
Do you think CTE is now a talking point around the league, that players are openly thinking about it?
Much more than it used to be. With the active players, there was this imaginary curtain—we’re not going to go there, not going to look at what might happen. But now I do see players talking about CTE; they mention protecting their brain. And even if they don’t discuss CTE amongst themselves, they definitely are aware of it. They’re also getting more information from family members. CTE isn’t just a personal disease, it affects the whole family. Players talk to their wives, girlfriends, parents, and their level of concern is higher than it used to be.
Gronk isn’t even 30. This is not a disease that strikes people only when they’re older, is it?
Our lab is almost at 700 brains—670 or 680. We’re seeing younger players with more severe CTE as a trend. There’s no data yet, but it’s just something that we’re watching. Players under 30 seem to have more disease than I saw 10 years ago. Is that real? I don’t know. But there is no escaping the fact that young players are developing this disease. Smart players like Rob Gronkowski know that stopping playing is the single best way to limit the damage to their brain.
Do you think the NFL is also talking about it enough?
I don’t hear much from the league, and when I do, I hear a lot about concussions. They’ve made rule changes to protect the players from concussions, but I am not seeing fundamental changes to limit the number of low-level hits than can lead to CTE. I definitely don’t think the league is doing enough to reduce the subconcussive hits.
Tom Brady is the opposite of Gronk. He has played for almost 20 years.
Anyone who has played at that high level for a long time is at higher risk. I don’t think Tom Brady is immune from that risk.
But it does seem like more players are doing what Gronk is doing rather than what Brady is doing, doesn’t it?
I know Chris Borland pretty well now. He showed a lot of courage and foresight in retiring when his career was just beginning. Players are more aware there is life after football, and they are talking about their future brain health much more than they used to.
What’s next with your lab?
We are looking at genetics as risk factors for CTE. We know there are individual differences that might make a difference in whether you get CTE, like cardiovascular health, cognitive reserve, and educational attainment. The main focus of our work is not just to document who has CTE and who doesn’t. Looking into the brain gives us insight into how the disease develops, insight into what are the first changes in the brain, and what we can do early on to detect it and stop it. Our basic mission is to develop ways to intervene and treat this disease. By having a lot of brains to study and distributing samples of brain to other researchers, you accelerate research. And that’s the fastest way to get to answers.
The family of Olympic cyclist Kelly Catlin, who died from suicide at age 23, recently donated her brain to your lab. Why was that significant?
We are seeing a big uptick in the number of women’s brains donated, which is important because historically we had very few brains from women, and there is some evidence that women may be more prone to concussions and recover more slowly from concussions. We know women get CTE, but we don’t know if they are more prone to developing it than men. If they are, it’s important for us to understand why.
We’re also getting the word out in other sports, ice hockey, soccer, rugby, sports that are more popular worldwide. And we’re very interested in domestic abuse, because that can also cause these injuries.
It sounds like the lab’s work is growing.
We are definitely expanding, stretching out. We’re developing other centers in the United States, starting with Mount Sinai [in New York City]. We want to maintain the momentum that we have built, but we need additional support. We have about 30 people in the lab, and we continue to expand. We’re like a major start-up company. It’s been really rewarding, but it’s also incredibly hard work.
I think as we see more and more scientific advances about CTE, more researchers will be attracted to the field, and that will really speed things up.
Editor’s note: The line in the story about repetitive, low-level hits to the head was added for clarity after this was published.