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Keith Strudler: 110 Of 111

You know how they say that knowledge is power. In some cases that’s true. Like if you know the winning numbers to the lottery, that’s powerful information. Which makes knowledge a valuable commodity. But sometimes, it’s not. Which means sometimes, you don’t want to know everything. That might be for plausible deniability, which, let’s say, could keep you out of jail. Our out of divorce court. That’s why some things are on a need-to-know basis. But the real issue with knowledge isn’t just that it can get you in trouble. It’s that once you know something, especially something bad, now you have to do something about it. It’s part of the cognitive dissonance thing, meaning it’s hard to manage inconsistent ideas.

Such dissonance is now increasingly an issue for the NFL – really for football in general. Because yesterday the most comprehensive study to date on the links between the degenerative brain disease CTE and playing football was released. And the knowledge gained by these results is not particularly empowering for anyone making a living off the game.

In a nutshell, and myself being a social scientist not a neurological one, Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University examined brains of 202 deceased, former football players. 111 of those brains came from athletes who played professionally in the NFL. Of those 111, 110 showed signs of CTE. That is not particularly good information for the League. These symptoms ran across position and age at death. Of the larger 202 brains – some which played high school, others college ball, and come in the Canadian Football League – 87% showed signs of CTE. Which suggests that longer careers taking more hits from athletes with NFL size and speed increases the risk. The study noted that high school athletes showed more mild cases, while professional athletes more pronounced.

If you so desire, it’s not hard to find inherent weaknesses with the study. Most notably, such a subject pool of donated brains brings inherent selection bias. Meaning, people who think they have CTE and have suffered multiple concussions may be much more likely to donate their brains to science than those who haven’t. Which means your results wouldn’t reflect the larger population of football players. That said, we are talking about 110 out of 111. As someone already pointed out, even if every single retired NFL athlete outside this sample didn’t have CTE – which is categorically impossible – the overall percentage would still be far above the general population. So research design aside, any methodological critiques are misguided at best.

So, the question becomes, now what? What is the NFL, the NCAA, and really football at large supposed to do? They have all this knowledge, all of which seems less empowering and more likely to dismantle their entire business model. And of course, can make them infinitely more vulnerable for any lawsuit from current and future players. How can football, a sport which inherently involves repeated blows to the head, exist in a landscape where such contact will almost assuredly cause life altering disease?

The answer is, they can’t. Football can’t eliminate all risk, even if they can try to make it safer. They can pad the helmets, hit less, do less contact in practice, and all that. But in the end, football – the kind we want to watch – inherently leads right to where this recent study ends. In catastrophe.

Which means – and I never believed this to be true before – that football in the US really has two paths. One, a slow but inevitable road to irrelevance, where it’s simply a barbaric sport that used to be really popular and really important. A game that was the near cornerstone of research universities across the country. The flag pole of our truest national holiday. That slow but steady slide is one possibility.

The other option is that we simply, as a collective, ignore both science and instinct. That we sidestep dissonance by alternative explanations – like that everyone knows the risks, or doctors don’t know everything, or that they make a lot of money – or whatever it is that allows us to watch a football game without eating ourselves alive with guilt. And I say us, because while I fully understand the ramifications of this study, I also still have this unwavering excitement about the upcoming college football season, when I’ll spend the better part of my Saturdays watching 20 year olds beat themselves into a statistic. I believe this is the textbook definition of addiction.

So that’s where we are. Where knowledge is anything but power. Ignorance is bliss. And sport is an opiate. Seems fitting in times like these. I don’t know which path we’ll take. But as 110 or 111 former NFL athletes would tell you, this decision has consequences.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management. 

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