NFL players have been warned of long-term consequences of brain trauma as part of concussion education since 2010
Now it is time for the NCAA to adopt a similar approach, according to an organization called the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI), which is led by sports brain trauma experts Dr. Robert Cantu and Chris Nowinski.
In 2010, the NCAA began requiring concussion education for athletes and requiring members to develop and implement concussion management programs. However, concussion education materials provided by the NCAA to student athletes made no mention of the risk of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), according to the SLI.
CTE is defined as symptoms associated with any degenerative brain disease for which brain trauma is an established risk factor, as a long-term consequence of concussions and sub-concussive brain trauma.
By contrast, NFL players began receiving concussion education materials developed by the NFL, NFL Players Association, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with the following warning:
“According to CDC, ‘traumatic brain injury can cause a wide range of short- or long-term changes affecting thinking, sensation, language, or emotions.’ These changes may lead to problems with memory and communication, personality changes, as well as depression and the early onset of dementia. Concussions and conditions resulting from repeated brain injury can change your life and your family’s life forever.”
Cantu noted that CTE “can be a devastating neurological disease, and anyone voluntarily exposing themselves to repeated brain trauma should be warned of the consequences, even though we cannot yet perfectly quantify the risk.”
SLI claimed that it made its first request of the NCAA in January 2012.
Nowinski, a former All-Ivy defensive lineman for Harvard University, added that “NCAA athletes are not financially compensated for the health risks to which they are exposed. We need to appreciate the irony of asking scholarship athletes to trade a free education for the risk of a degenerative brain disease that may minimize the benefit of that education. Athletes deserve to have informed consent and the opportunity to modify their behavior based on established science.”
CTE, originally referred to as “dementia pugilistica” because it was believed to only affect boxers, is a progressive brain disease believed to be caused by repetitive trauma to the brain, including concussions or sub-concussive blows. CTE can only be definitively diagnosed after death through examination of the brain, and in recent years CTE has been diagnosed in dozens of former athletes at multiple research centers, including active and former NCAA athletes.
SLI noted that University of Pennsylvania football co-captain Owen Thomas committed suicide in April 2010, and was diagnosed with CTE despite never having a diagnosed concussion. Owen’s mother, Reverend Katherine E. Brearley, stated, “As responsible parents we had warned Owen of many life dangers such as drinking and driving, HIV, illegal drug use. If we had read some simple materials about the effects of CTE it would have allowed us to start a conversation with Owen. This would not have changed the fact that he had CTE, but we would have tackled that possibility as a family. We need materials for parents and young athletes to help them engage in a meaningful dialogue about the possible dangers.”
Former Eastern Illinois wide receiver Mike Borich, who was named NCAA Division One Offensive Coordinator of the Year as a Brigham Young University football coach in 2001, died in 2009 at the age of 42 while suffering from CTE, according to SLI. Borich struggled with problems with cognition, behavior, and addiction that may have been related to the disease.
Cantu and Nowinski serve on the Ivy League Concussion Committee and the NFL Players Association Mackey/White Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. In addition, Cantu serves as a senior advisor to the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee, and Nowinski is on the board of directors of the Brain Injury Association of America.