A few major sports stories may have collided, according to a prominent neurologist. First, there are the multiple lawsuits against the NFL regarding the effects of repeated brain injuries. Second, there are the two NFL players accused of assaulting family members. This neurologist is asking, wouldn’t it be quite a coincidence if they weren’t connected?
More and more research is showing the dangers of repeated blows to the head. Consider how many times a player collides with another player or hits the ground in one practice or one game, much less during the course of his career. The result is an increased risk of long-term brain damage and related life-altering neurological diseases. Parkinson’s disease is a prime example.
Another is CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a degenerative disease that affects its victims sometimes years after the brain injury occurs. Players suffering from CTE and their families have reported dramatic changes in personality, including violent outbursts.
The problem is that doctors may suspect a patient has CTE but can only confirm the diagnosis in an autopsy. Here, the example is NFL linebacker Junior Seau.
When the 43-year-old committed suicide after struggling with depression and substance abuse — behavior changes that family and friends were troubled by — he left instructions that his brain be used for researching CTE and other long-term effects of a career’s worth of concussions. Researchers did confirm his diagnosis eight months after his death.
Not all neurologists and medical researchers have adopted the theory that CTE or traumatic brain injuries are related to the violent crimes or reckless behavior football players have exhibited. Former players with CTE symptoms are more likely to have trouble maintaining relationships and, in time, to turn to alcohol and pain medication for relief — as Seau did. The subsequent frustration and despair tend to be associated more with suicide than domestic violence.
There are scientists who fall somewhere in the middle, though. Their theory: Football injuries may take a toll on the frontal lobes, the parts of the brain that control “executive function.” Essentially, damage to that part of the brain would lift the victim’s inhibitions. If there were an underlying tendency toward violence, the victim’s ability to control it could be compromised.
All are interesting arguments, though made in tragic circumstances. We’ll see what further research uncovers.