On September 24, 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that some of the powerhouse high school football programs in Southern California were having trouble fielding teams.[i] Mater Dei’s freshman team dropped 30%, Loyola had the fewest number of freshman players in 2 decades, and significant drops were also seen at Notre Dame, Alemany, and Crespi, where I played football 47 years ago. Participation in football has declined in 5 of the last 6 years.
This is bad news for high schools, colleges, and the NFL that make billions of dollars each year at the expense of the health of millions of children, teenagers and young adults. And, it will get much worse for football now that the gripping movie “Concussion” has been released. It stars Will Smith as the Nigerian pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or football dementia, in Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster’s brain and then others, and Dr. Omalu’s subsequent war against the NFL.
The research is clear: playing tackle football at any level can cause long term brain damage. In 2011 my colleagues and I published the first and largest brain imaging study on 100 active and retired NFL players from 27 teams and all positions.[ii] Over 90% of them showed clear evidence of traumatic brain injury (TBI) on two different types of studies: single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), which evaluates blood flow and activity patterns, and quantitative EEG, which looks at electrical activity patterns. There was consistent damage to the brain’s prefrontal cortex (judgment, planning, forethought, and impulse control), temporal lobes (learning, memory, and mood stability), and cerebellum (mental agility and processing speed). And our group is not the only one reporting these problems. Last month a study from the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University reported that 96% (87-91) of former NFL players autopsied had clear evidence of CTE, and that 79% of males who played football at ANY level had it as well.[iii]