Fred McNeill’s story is a familiar one. He played football for 22 years, 12 in the NFL as a linebacker. Years after he retired, CTE symptoms started piling up. Depression. Memory loss. And eventually, deterioration in motor skills and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disorder that has been linked with CTE. He died at 63.
Yet McNeill’s case is different than the many other NFL players linked to CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Up until McNeill, every player associated with CTE had the disorder diagnosed only after his death, when the athletes’ brains could be examined for the presence of a buildup of tau, a protein associated with the disease. In McNeill’s case, however, researchers were able to detect presence of the protein in the former linebacker’s brain while he was still alive. He died two years ago, although news of the CTE detection emerged only in November’s publication of the medical journal Neurosurgery.
That’s the first time researchers have detected the primary indicator of CTE in a live patient, a breakthrough that could eventually lead to early detection and, ultimately, treatment. It also represents yet another sign of the dangers posed by CTE, and highlights the need for the institutions behind football to make the game much safer than it is now.
The NFL has tried to make the case that it understands the gravity of CTE, and will do its part to safeguard players. It now requires players who show signs of disorientation to be checked immediately, and to be kept out of the game if diagnosed with a concussion. It’s working to develop safer helmets. And last year it said it would set aside more than $100 million for concussion research.
So far, however, the league has earmarked money from the $100 million pot for just one research project — and that’s to study concussions suffered by jockeys who have fallen off horses, ESPN.com recently reported. “What interested (the NFL) about our project is the fact that we have this cohort of jockeys, retired jockeys in their 50s, 60s and 70s who suffered a lot of concussions when they were younger and don’t appear to have any long-term effects of it,” one of the project’s researchers told Sky Sports in 2015. Except it doesn’t take Bill Belichick football smarts to figure out that jockeys don’t take the repetitive hits to the head that football players do.
The research into CTE continues to uncover more about football’s risks. Earlier this year, research at Boston University’s CTE Center linked CTE to all but one of 111 former NFL players’ brains examined posthumously. CTE was also found in 48 of 53 deceased players who played in college, and three of 14 deceased former high school football players. Those brains were donated by families of players who had symptoms of CTE. The results are too striking to ignore. A Boston University study also found that youths who started playing tackle football before they were 12 suffered more cognitive and behavioral problems later in life than kids who began playing football after age 12.
The work on McNeill’s case could be a steppingstone to one day pinpointing CTE in college or even high school players, so that damage can be mitigated and treated. But that day is likely years down the road.
In the meantime, if football is to survive as a pastime, it has to become safer, at every level. There’s growing talk of banning tackling in youth football. While that’s up to individual communities to decide, we’re glad it’s being broached. The Ivy League banned tackling during regular season practices, and some youth leagues and high schools around the country also have scaled back contact during practices.
Those are all steps in the right direction, but only steps. Head into a sports bar on a fall Sunday and you’ll see football isn’t going away anytime soon. But the people who steward the sport will have to do more to turn the tide against CTE. Otherwise, parental pressure and financial liability could send football the way of the drop kick.