Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease that affects the brain and is typically found in athletes who have sustained repetitive trauma to the brain, like concussions and subconcussive blows to the head. Since the disease was initially diagnosed, it was typically thought of as a boxers problem, due to the multiple blows to the head during fights and training. However, recent reports confirm that retired NFL football players and other athletes who have sustained repetitive trauma to the brain may also suffer from CTE.
The repetitive trauma causes a degeneration to the tissue of the brain, and causes a build up of a protein called tau. This can occur right after the last brain trauma, or up to decades later. Symptoms can be confusion, memory loss, suicidal thoughts and impulses, impulse control problems, impaired judgment, aggression, and depression, with a likely outcome of progressive dementia.
Questions immediately arose after the sudden apparent suicide of BMX icon Dave Mirra earlier this week. Did the X Games legend turned rally car driver suffer from CTE? That is currently unknown, but many extreme action sports athletes crash and do take repeated blows to the head, and it has now become a topic of discussion in not just the skate and BMX world, but throughout sports.
Tests done after the recent death of Super Bowl winning quarterback Ken Stabler showed that he suffered from CTE. Kim Bush, Stabler’s long-time partner said that the quarterback pulled back from public appearances in 2008 because memory loss started to appear. Frequent headaches and the slightest noise could annoy him, NPR reported. He told her that there was a high pitch E sound all the time and he began to grit his teeth. Stabler died in 2015 from colon cancer, but the CTE effects were there, as well as in 1000’s of other professional athletes.
Fellow NFL legend Junior Seau did not have a reported history of concussions during his career, but his ex-wife did say that she knew Seau suffered from them, but would bounce right back and keep playing. In 2012, Seau committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. It was later revealed that he suffered from CTE.
High School football, college football, and even the NFL have revamped their concussion protocol, equipment manufacturers have redesigned helmets, and there are now sensors that can help detect potential head trauma, but is it enough? Football starts for kids in the United States as early as 4 years old. Due to the recent explosion of CTE talk, some parents have started pulling young kids out of football, but others continue to push their children on. And what about other sports?
Baseball initiated a helmet rule for base coaches, but this was primarily for protection from line drives to the head. Nothing is really being done to alleviate collisions on the base paths, running into outfield walls or other potential brain injury situations. Whether the death of Dave Mirra is determined to be from CTE or not, the discussion is taking place and people seem more worried than ever. This could be a good outcome from a tragedy, but will it save lives in the long run? Only if steps are taken to remove the potential from sports for traumatic brain injuries all together.
By Cletus Dillwood