A recent autopsy from Boston University revealed that ex-NFLer Phillip Adams, who shot six people to death before killing himself in April, had an unusually severe form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE, at the time of his death. A degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma, CTE is only able to be diagnosed post-mortem, but the signs are clear in life — symptoms include severe mood swings, memory loss and dementia, aggression, paranoia, depression, and loss of impulse control. Without the ability to diagnose the disease in living subjects, there is no known cure.
In a statement, Adams’ family wrote, “After going through medical records from his football career, we do know that he was desperately seeking help from the N.F.L. but was denied all claims due to his inability to remember things and to handle seemingly simple tasks such as traveling hours away to see doctors and going through extensive evaluations.”
In 2017, a study of 111 brains of deceased NFL players found a 99 percent rate of CTE — 110 out of 111. Some things have changed since 2002, when the league adamantly denied the findings of Dr. Bennet Omalu, insisting at the time that there was virtually no risk of brain trauma for football players. Billions of dollars have been doled out in concussion settlements, rule changes have been implemented to limit the risk of head injury, stricter in-game concussion protocols have been put into place. But there has not been any real attempt to publicly acknowledge the dangers that the sport places its players in on a day-to-day basis in games and practices, and the money that the NFL pledged in 2012 for brain research was later partially renounced when it was revealed that the league was attempting to influence the research. As the Adams tragedy demonstrates, the disease is not only a danger to the player who contracts it, but to others around him.
Former NFL players Aaron Hernandez and Jovan Belcher, who shot and killed people close to them before later committing suicide, were revealed to have suffered from the same disease in their respective autopsies. At the time of Belcher’s postmortem CTE diagnosis, a prominent neurosurgeon said that violence against others was “not typically part of the CTE picture.”
In the years following, the question has been raised as to whether there is any link between the NFL’s domestic violence problems and the mounting diagnoses of CTE in deceased players. As of yet, there have not been any definitive findings on such a link, but there have been multiple cases of players who were accused of domestic violence in their lifetimes later being found to have had the disease. It’s a tough line for everyone to walk: acknowledging the link between CTE and violent conduct without excusing intimate partner and stranger violence.
This continuing research poses a deeply troubling situation for the NFL, as it loses its grip on the narrative of brain disease caused by football — a narrative it has tried to control and minimize for two decades. Since the disease cannot be diagnosed before death, the league has a certain plausible deniability in cases like that of six-year league veteran Adams.
Certainly, it’s in the NFL’s best interests, financial and otherwise, to make it as difficult as possible for players like Adams to get the assistance they need. But after violent episodes like Belcher’s and Adams’, the league has a moral obligation to address the issue of public safety.
The NFL risks enormous financial loss as studies on CTE and sport-related brain trauma gain traction and expose the dangers of tackle football at all levels, from childhood to professional play — thus, they will likely never truly acknowledge the troubling and terrifying reality that neurologists have presented to the public in the past two decades. CTE has also been found in the brains of deceased professional hockey players and boxers, who suffer repeated head injuries and undiagnosed concussions in their sports as well.