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Super Bowl Sunday and CTE: Defining features of the NFL


With the Super Bowl just passing, the concept of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and other associated diseases from football is something worth discussing.

Nicholas Tibollo | Interrobang | Sports | February 12th, 2018

Feb. 4 saw the New England Patriots fail to capture their record-tying sixth Super Bowl win, dropping a closely contested match to the Philadelphia Eagles 41-33. The last time New England made it to the big game and fell short was against the New York Giants in 2012.

In both instances, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was unable to secure a game-saving Hail Mary pass from quarterback Tom Brady with time expiring off the clock. In 2012, however, the last-second toss by Brady tipped off of another one New England's tight ends, Aaron Hernandez, before falling short of a diving Gronkowski.

Hernandez, unlike his two teammates, was never able to come back and hoist the Lombardi Trophy. The star receiver out of Florida was plagued by trouble outside of the locker-room.

In 2013, just over a year after playing in the Super Bowl, Hernandez was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Two years later, he was found guilty. In 2017, while serving life in prison without the possibility of parole, the former Patriots standout took his own life. In the aftermath, Hernandez's family offered his brain to science.

This past fall researchers revealed that the once promising young player was suffering from a severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the time of his death.

CTE, is a neurodegenerative disease most commonly found in athletes that participate in contact sports such as football, rugby, hockey, and mixed martial arts. Current evidence shows that a history of repeated blows to the head, whether concussive or not, links all CTE subjects.

Amongst other side effects, CTE is thought to cause impulsivity, increased aggression, anxiety, depression and memory loss.

Hernandez, at just 27-years-old, had what doctors deemed to be stage three CTE.

His brain had the appearance of a 70-year-old man.

Whether or not CTE can bear the blame for Hernandez's abhorrent off-field behaviour is debatable. It is certain, however, that the actions of the former tight end were of a person who was unable to make proper choices and control their emotions.

Hernandez's case was severe, but by no means rare. CTE can affect anyone that has experienced sustained head trauma. Of the over 200 former football players that have been tested for CTE, positive results appeared in almost 90 per cent of patients. What is more, the disease can only be definitively diagnosed with careful analysis of the brain after death (in a process not included in a typical autopsy). Thus, there are likely far more people suffering from CTE than any statistics currently indicate. Given the serious nature and suspected prevalence of the disorder, researchers are beginning to dedicate more and more time and energy to studying CTE in the lab.

On Jan. 15, CBC London published an article titled Western researchers discover link between brain disorders, where scientists at Western, led by Dr. Michael Strong, published the results of a six-year study that links CTE with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). According to the article, the researchers see the presence of tau protein in the brain is characteristic of both diseases.

Determining an association between ALS and its lesser known counterpart will help in the construction of appropriate treatments for those believed to be living with CTE.

Someone like Aaron Hernandez should serve as a warning sign to athletes, coaches and team owners alike. Rules must be amended, protective technology must improve, and advancements in medicine have to persist in order to keep players safe on the field and later in life.
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