Head coaches like Bill O'Brien now have early retirements of players to think about in constructing a team.
Head coaches like Bill O'Brien now have early retirements of players to think about in constructing a team.
Photo by Eric Sauseda

2017 NFL Preseason Begins Under Cloud of New Head Trauma Findings

The sky was blue, the temperatures pleasant and the air crisp as the Houston Texans began their 2017 preseason at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, this week. However, the entire festivities have a figurative black cloud hanging over them in the latest information on the effect of head trauma on players' brains.

It came in the form of a study published Tuesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association that examined the brains of 202 former football players, 111 of whom finished their playing careers at the NFL level. Courtesy of the New York Post, here are the details:

A new study on the link between playing football and CTE — chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease associated with concussions — has found that of 111 former NFL players tested, 110 were found to have the disease.

The study, published Tuesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at the brains of 202 total former football players, who had died at ages from 23 to 89. Of the 202, 177 (87 percent) were confirmed to have the disease that has various symptoms, from depression to confusion to dementia. The more football played, the better chance of testing positive, the study found: 99 percent of former NFL players studied had CTE.

“This study nearly doubles the number of confirmed cases of CTE in the world’s literature, and represents a significant advance in our understanding of the disease,” said first co-author Daniel Daneshvar.

Those are some scary (but not all that surprising) numbers. Sports yields wear and tear, and when you're in a sport in which the human head's state of being ranges from "in harm's way every play" to "used periodically as a weapon," the wear and tear is going to occur in the brain. It's just scary to get statistical validation of something where the effects are so life-altering. Artificial hips and knees are commonplace in former players of all sports, but artificial brains? They don't make those.

When asked about the CTE study at training camp on Wednesday, Bill O'Brien gave a pretty thoughtful answer:

“I think that this is a great game but paramount within this game is the need for constant discussion about player safety. I mean, I think that we have to adhere to the rules, which we do. I know all 32 teams do. As a head coach, I’m very aware of it. We showed a 15-minute video to our team last night about the concussion protocol. It’s a great game but we’ve got to do a good job of trying, as much as we can, take the head out of the game and make sure that our players are playing it the right way and safety with our players is paramount.”

When players were asked about CTE, they were predictably more voluntarily ignorant. Here's what Tom Savage said:

“I haven’t read the study but I know what I signed up for. I love the sport.”

And J.J. Watt:

“I like football. I like the way it is. You can talk to people a whole lot smarter than me for that.”

As the football world digested the findings in the CTE study, one more NFL player got out while the getting was still good. Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel, a fifth-round pick in 2014 out of Penn State, who played collegiately for Bill O'Brien, decided to walk away from the game at age 26, and put his bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics to work. He is reportedly also pursuing a Ph.D. at MIT.

The decision of Urschel is part of a growing trend of players leaving while they still feel their mental capacities are intact and are going to be intact into their elder years. What will be fascinating to see is how the NFL attempts to ascertain and predict which players will CHOOSE to stay in the game amid this new research. Does a player who has options and degrees like Urschel actually get a negative mark next to his name because they don't NEED football as badly as someone who is less educated with fewer job options?

Whatever the effect, the storm of head trauma has been gathering for years. The clouds have now become much, much easier to see, and pretty darn daunting.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.

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