The NFL is, to be polite, discerning about what kind of brain research it endorses in the ongoing study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). So far, it seems to favor better helmets (which are bullshit) and better sideline procedures (the chief of which, the King-Devick test, might not be bullshit). It also likes to fund studies and appear proactive on the issue, which brings us to its latest venture: donating to an international study that posits, shockingly, that football isn’t actually all that dangerous, all things considered.
The NFL will match $600,000 in privately raised research funding for a new collaborative study between English, American, and Australian brain scientists that will study players across sports, beginning in January 2016. The leading scientist is Michael Turner, medical director of the International Concussion and Head Injury Research Foundation (ICHIRF). Turner, whose previous job was as head of the British Horseracing Authority, thinks the media is getting out ahead of itself on concussion science:
“The media hype is way ahead of the science,” he told Reuters at the NFL’s second annual professional sports concussion conference in London.
“Normally what happens is we painstakingly move forward and we produce the science at the end of it and public and media interest starts to pick up. With this it has been quite the opposite.”
Broadly, this is true. Concussion science has slowed to the point that the postmortem CTE check has more ceremonial than functional value. But the “media hype” has been in service of forcing action by the NFL. Without rhetoric that at times outstrips the state of science as governed by rules of evidence, there would be no reason for the NFL to do a damn thing. Which, to Turner, might be just fine (emphasis mine):
By my estimation and from information we have got from various charities involved in racing, they don’t seem to be coming to a great deal of problems, having lots of concussions.
Turner is either buying into the NFL’s bullshit self-reporting on the number of concussions experienced by players here, or else he’s making a whale of a fine distinction. The latter seems less likely when set against Turner’s explanation of what does cause depression and altered cognitive states in former NFLers:
“Also when athletes retire they are at a very critical period in their lives. Prior to that they were well-known they might have been famous and earning quite a lot of money and suddenly, they have very little status, nobody knows who they are, they don’t have somewhere to go to work and I think that transition can be badly handled by lots of sports.”
He goes on:
“You never hear that discussion among professional athletes or student athletes when they have finished competing and what we find out is that people who have pre-injury had mood disorders or depression do worse than those who don’t.”
So yes, he’s right about the fact that not every concussion victim will develop mental problems. (For example, 87 of the 91 former players autopsied showed signs of CTE, but the sample is massively self-selected.) But to just toss what observation has been done down the shitter is, uhm, not exactly prudent. Damage to regions of the brain associated with CTE puts people at risk for depression—and there’s ample evidence that the tau clusters that denote CTE are present there, even if we don’t know exactly how those mutated clusters affect function.
Furthermore, chronic pain is a major factor in the development of clinical depression and NFL players tend to leave the league with lingering injuries. Maybe, if Turner wants to make sweeping judgments about why players are sad after they retire because they’re not famous anymore, he should look at their physical conditions too. The ways that NFL football (and other contact sports) affects players in later life are complex, and very far from being fully understood.
Which is all to say that Turner’s suggestions here, in his capacity as a scientist, are at best reckless. As the head of an NFL-sanctioned study, one empowered to take part in the future of concussion science, they border on negligence. And as the shithead just a few breaths removed from griping about discussion of CTE racing far ahead of the Real Science, they’re a very funny thing indeed.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or @patrickredford.