By Ken Reed

We found out this week that a bright young man with a big heart and promising future died, because of football.

Twelve-year NFL veteran and three-time pro bowler, Vincent Jackson, who died at age 38 in February, had stage 2 CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) his family announced Thursday.

CTE is a degenerative brain disease caused by a history of multiple concussions and/or repetitive blows to the head — as is often the case in heavy contact sports like football and hockey. Stage 2 CTE is associated with behavioral symptoms such as violent aggression, impulsivity, depression, paranoia, and suicidal ideation.

Life is dangerous. And there are many dangerous professions. But when it comes to brain health, pro football has to be near the top.

“Vincent Jackson was a brilliant, disciplined, gentle giant whose life began to change in his mid-30s,” said Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology for the VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the BU CTE Center and VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank. “He became depressed, with progressive memory loss, problem solving difficulties, paranoia, and eventually extreme social isolation.

“That his brain showed stage 2 CTE should no longer surprise us; these results have become commonplace,” said McKee.

“What is surprising is that so many football players have died with CTE and so little is being done to make football, at all levels, safer by limiting the number of repetitive subconcussive hits.  CTE will not disappear by ignoring it, we need to actively address the risk that football poses to brain health and to support the players who are struggling.”

Back when Jackson turned 18 and embarked on his college football career, the dangers of CTE weren’t widely known.  Today, that’s not the case.  The negative impact concussions and repetitive brain trauma can have (including CTE) is widely known.  Most college and pro football players understand, at least to some degree, the brain health risks that come with playing football.  Undoubtedly, they — and their loved ones — should be educated more on the risks of playing football.  But the vast majority of college and pro football players are 18+ adults and free to make their own decisions.

My biggest concern is youth and high school football players who haven’t reached the age of consent yet and whose brains are still developing.  In these cases, the adults in their lives — parents and coaches — are making the final decision as to whether or not a kid should be playing football.  

Dr. Bennet Omalu is the forensic neuropathologist that brought chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), its potentially dire consequences, and the dangers of playing football to the nation’s attention. He is played by Will Smith in the movie Concussion.

“We should at least wait for our children to grow up, be provided with the information and education on the risk of play, and let them make their own decisions,” wrote Omalu in a New York Times op-ed.

“No adult, not a parent or a coach, should be allowed to make this potentially life-altering decision for a child.

“We have a legal age for drinking alcohol; for joining the military; for voting; for smoking; for driving; and for consenting to have sex. We must have the same when it comes to protecting the organ that defines who we are as human beings.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

The challenge — and it’s a huge one — is that as a society we love football so much that it’s easy to avoid hard discussions about the sport’s safety. It’s a fun and entertaining sport, no doubt. But we must look at it head on with clear eyes. Broken arms, torn knee ligaments and dislocated shoulders are one thing. Serious damage to the brain, the organ that gives human beings their personalities and ability to function effectively, is quite another.

In an eye-opening study done by researchers at the Boston University CTE Center, each year a person endures the repetitive head collisions in football the risk of developing the degenerative brain disease CTE increases by 30 percent. In addition, for every 2.6 years of play, the risk of developing CTE doubles.

It’s not realistic to think football will ever be banned in this country. However, we need to be doing all we can to limit contact to the head in the sport. Some steps have been taken in this direction but more needs to be done. Some possibilities that have been presented by various parties include no full contact practices; no tackling or blocking that leads with the head instead of shoulders and arms; requiring all linemen to be in two-point stances; severe penalties for spearing; etc.

If these actions — or others with a similar intent — aren’t implemented, we’ll continue to read about sad stories like that of Jackson and former NFL player Philip Adams. The same week the news about Jackson broke we learned that Adams had stage 2 CTE when he shot and killed six people before taking his own life in an April shooting in South Carolina.

It’s all just so sad.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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