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Football and concussions: How safe is the Super Bowl for players’ brains?

An update on the link between football, head injuries, and brain damage.

Football and concussions: How safe is the Super Bowl for players’ brains?
[Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images]
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Remember the hullabaloo about five or six years ago over football players’ chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative neurological disease caused by repeated blows to the head, which leads to often-severe cognitive, mood, and behavioral difficulties? In 2017, a Boston University study of 111 brains of deceased former NFL players found that 110 of them had CTE.

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Where do things stand now? Fresh research suggests that players will be safer on the field during the Super Bowl this Sunday than they are during practice: A study published Monday in JAMA Neurology found that most concussions and head blows happen during practices, not games—and that those injuries are more common in preseason. Overall, head blows in practices were 84% higher than in games. The study, which focused on college football, followed 528,000 head impacts over four years.

The NFL’s response to the issue of head injuries has been to throw money at it: a $765 million settlement with players over head injuries in 2013, followed by a $1 billion settlement for retired players, as well as a 2016 pledge $100 million toward CTE research and engineering. The NFL had previously limited the number of full-contact practices per season, though COVID-related season changes this year allowed an unusual string of opportunities for in-practice head injuries.

Last summer an Israeli team found that CTE, which is commonly diagnosed after death, could be identified in live players with MRIs that measure leakage of the blood-brain barrier. Other efforts to diagnose living players have followed. This year, the pandemic has usurped research and media attention, but the threat to players remains as dire as ever.