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Sports-Related CTE Is a Serious Problem; Unfortunately, Sen. Chap Petersen Gives Us a Completely Non-Serious Response


I’ve been reading a bunch of articles recently about the relationship between contact sports like football and CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] — “the degenerative brain disease that causes memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia.” Yesterday, I also read this…uh…we’ll just call it a “rant” by Virginia State Senator Chap Petersen (founder of the “Redskins Pride Caucus” – yes, that’s an actual thing, believe it or not – in the Virginia General Assembly).

But before we get to Chap(!)’s macho, anti-scientific, right-wing-style ravings, let’s see what actual medical professionals (e.g., people who have a clue what they’re talking about) have to say about this important subject. For instance, check out the following discussion (video below) on the PBS NewsHour the other night regarding “the largest study to date [which] concluded that 110 of 111 former NFL players who had died and donated their brains had CTE [“a neurodegenerative disease similar to Alzheimer’s].” But wait, it’s not just former NFL players: “Researchers also looked at the brains of 202 former players, including high school and college athletes; 87 percent were found to have CTE.” One of the co-authors of the study, neuropsychologist Michael Alosco, PhD, of the Boston University CTE Center, says that study’s findings are “really suggesting a link between prior participation in football and CTE.” So how bad is CTE? According to Alosco, “in CTE, we’re commonly seeing behavior changes, so we’re seeing aggressive behaviors, violent behaviors. We’re seeing changes in mood, like depression. And we’re also seeing changes in thinking and memory.

So yeah, CTE is really, really nasty. And again, this disease does NOT just occur in NFL players. As Alosco explains, “we’re finding CTE kind of across the levels of play going from high school up to the people who play professionally.” Of course, more research is required, and it’s not easy to do on the brains of living athletes, but Alosco is “really hopeful that, you know, in the next five or seven years, we will make a lot of progress on that front.”

Meanwhile, the “million-dollar question we always get,” as Alosco explains, is “should I pull my child out of football?” And the answer to that question is not – repeat NOT – yet clear.  Here’s Alosco (bolding added by me for emphasis):

…it’s a very tough question, and the reason being is, we know there’s a lot of benefits associated with playing sports and participating in sports. But this study and our findings, they raise a lot of concern. But we need to do more future research. We need to know more about the disease, more about the risk factors for the disease before we can really make any informed recommendations about policy or about safety. We need to learn more.

For those of us (myself included) who love sports, including sports where you get repeated blows to the head – e.g., “football, ice hockey, rugby, boxing, soccer (by “heading” especially), and wrestling” – this is, or at least should be, worrisome. Obviously, sports provide enormous benefits in many ways, but if a large percentage of participants in particular types of athletic activities end up with CTE, is that acceptable? I’d note that, in addition to the potentially enormous risks to people’s long-term health and well being, there’s also another big risk to schools and others who sponsor/host/etc. the types of sports that might result in high incidences of CTE: liability (bolding added by me for emphasis).

Concussion lawsuits, originally the province of the NFL, have been filed against high schools and colleges. Public school systems have been sued and judgments entered against them.

Most states will not allow a parent to contractually waive a minor child’s right to sue for a sports-related injury. Only 10 states, including Ohio, allow parental waiver/releases…This means Pennsylvania school districts cannot avoid liability with parental waivers.

According to the journal Neurotrauma, post-mortem evidence indicates that damage to the brain results from repeated trauma to the head, even when the player fails to show clinical symptoms. Players who have never had a true concussion could suffer neurocognitive and neurophysiological injuries.

Chronic trauma encephalopathy has been proved to have resulted from repeated head injury. The physical manifestations of CTE are a reduction in brain weight with atrophy of the medial temporal lobe, the frontal and temporal cortices, the brainstem, cerebellum, hippocampus and other parts of the brain. These changes cause severe mental confusion and depression.

Recently an Ohio State football player apparently committed suicide after experiencing the symptoms associated with repeated concussions. Junior Seau, the All Pro player, died in a similar fashion.

The bottom line is that no matter how much you love contact sports, this is serious stuff, requiring a serious response. Which is exactly what we do NOT get from Virginia State Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) in the following Facebook tirade (see screen shot below) he posted yesterday. It’s hard to even know where to start in critiquing this hyper-macho blather. How about the concept that “there is nothing like certain combat sports…to train your mind and body?” Uh, evidence for that statement? Or that “if you can take down a 250 lb man at full speed, you can make a closing argument to seven jurors?” Again, any evidence for that? Or the gratuitous, Limbaugh/Hannity/Trump-style slap at those “putting a ‘Resist’ sticker on a Prius?” Gack; with “Democrats” like this, who needs Republicans???

I ran these spewings by an area School Board member, and their response was, “if the evidence is clear and compelling that football as currently played causes brain injury, we will have to make it safe or prohibit it.” Is that a “no brainer” (bad pun intended) or what? Seems like it to me. But then again, I’m the type of person who: a) respects and listens to medical professionals and scientific experts in general; b) played a contact sport (floor hockey) for years; c) nonetheless thinks we need to adjust our policies/practices to new evidence as it comes available; and d) encourages everyone to drive more environmentally friendly vehicles (e.g., a Prius) AND to “resist” the unhinged tyrant in the White House — including with a sticker on your Prius. 😉 To quote Chap: I make “no apologies” and have “no regrets” for any of those things.

  • Bored George

    I think you overlooked the most egregious part of his little rant: State Senator “I know better than the medical researchers because rugby” is a *self-trained* coach, presumably for youth sports. So he’s inflicting his vast knowledge of the latest CTE research (at a minimum: three concussions’ worth) on kids at a practice field near you!

    • Yep, “egregious” is the correct adjective for Chap’s rant…

  • John Farrell

    I’m reminded of LBJ commenting that Gerald Ford had played too many games at Michigan without a helmet.

    It might explain more than a few votes in the General Assembly, no?

    • It actually would explain a lot of things…

  • dave schutz

    I’m actually fond of Chap Peterson. Nonetheless, when my #1 said, after I had refused a permission slip in fifth grade, ‘Dadda, when CAN I play football?’ – I said ‘When you are eighteen and we can’t stop you!’
    So he contented himself with basketball. Football is a beautiful game to watch, and the kids love it. I am inclined to think about rules changes which will eliminate head banging, or nearly so.

  • Quizzical

    Teddy Roosevelt had to take action more than 100 years ago to make football less brutal and less lethal.
    Nowadays, let’s face it, players are far bigger in part due to the use of steroids in conjunction with weight training. Also now we have a superior understanding of concussion injuries. It stands to reason that the rules of the game should adjust accordingly.

    The benefits of contact sports are, I submit, overrated. If you want to be a trial lawyer, the skills and confidence that you get from a high school drama program will likely exceed whatever the football program can deliver. If you miss out on the drama program, try Toastmasters. Try hanging out at the courthouse and watching actual trials. Try walking at the beach with stones in your mouth and making speeches over the noise of the surf, like Demosthenes.

    Chap, you really believe getting concussions is an asset? How many professsional boxers go on to have meaningful careers in anything else? Not many, because their brains are addled. I can’t think of any.

    But forget law. Are contact sports even useful training for the military? Not really. There is a certain amount of aggressiveness that the military wants to awaken, e.g. The Marine Corps using pugil sticks in training, but that is very limited. Military training doesn’t require getting concussions playing football or rugby. There are no more hoplites and no more shield walls.

    I don’t have anything against rugby. God bless all rugby players and the beer they drink and the songs they sing after their matches. But let’s not have any nonsense about it.