Detecting CTE—before it’s too late

culture / sports

Tom Schad writes about a potential breakthrough in diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease caused by contact sports like football:

So far, the existence of CTE, a neurodegenerative brain disease, can only be confirmed through an autopsy. But scientists have been conducting positron emission tomography (PET) scans of the brains of former football players and military members, looking for patterns in living subjects.

That’s where McNeill [i.e., Fred McNeill, former linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings] comes in.

Four years ago, scientists noticed spots in McNeill’s brain that appeared damaged. More recently, an autopsy revealed the presence of the protein associated with CTE in those exact spots.

Up till now, CTE couldn’t be definitively detected in living patients. That meant you could never be sure if a former player’s symptoms—memory loss, mood swings, depression—were the result of football injuries or some other natural cause. You would have to wait until the individual died and their brain tissue could be sliced up and examined.

But if this new scanning method proves reliable, it could erase any doubt about cognitive symptoms. Such a black-and-white test would make it difficult for NFL players to shrug off the dangers of football in favor of a massive payday.

But it’s not just the pros who would be impacted. PTE scanning could further football as a whole. If this “CTE test” is sensitive enough to detect the disease in its earliest stages, it could accelerate the game’s decline at all age levels. As high school players are tested, they (and their parents) would be confronted with the damage the sport has done to their brains. Families would start to question whether the risks of football justify the rewards.

As young players’ interest declines, a chain reaction could ignite. More and more high schools would shutter their football programs. This means fewer available players at the collegiate level, as well as a diminished quality of play (because there’d be a talented pool of players). Fan interest declines, and Division II and III schools disband their teams. Things continue to accelerate, and in the end, football becomes a niche gladiatorial pursuit, rather than a national pasttime—more like MMA than baseball.

Honestly, that’s what I hope will happen. Football is irredeemably brutal. It’s doesn’t matter how many programs institute tackle-free practices, which concussion protocols are adopted, or what technological wizardry is packed into the helmet. Those adaptations can’t change the fact that the fundamental element of the game—bodies smashing bodies—ruins men’s minds.

This new test might helps force us to confront that fact—now, rather than once it’s too late. ■