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Recent research suggests that repeated hits, not concussions, are to blame for CTE

Research from the last year should serve as a wake-up call for the sport at all levels

BU Researcher Confirms Aaron Hernandezs Brain Was Severely Afflicted By CTE

Aaron Hernandez’s swiss cheese brain...literally. It was the worst case of CTE anyone had seen in a player so young.

Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Back in July, we reported on emergent research that had hinted at an ominous finding: The act of playing football is inevitably linked with CTE. That research suggested that it is the repeated, subconcussive trauma of contact that leads to CTE, not the killshots across the middle or the vicious sack resulting in a concussion. Moreover, the longer a person is exposed to repetitive trauma, the more likely it becomes that a player will develop CTE.

If you missed that prior story, take a look: Nearly 100% of former NFL players, and nearly 90% of collegians were found to have the structural markers and tau proteins associated with CTE.

The most recent data are now in, and the findings are not good for the sport going forward. This most recent round of studies seems to tie together a few suspicions and prior clinical findings scientists had made about CTE: 1. It is progressive, nearly inevitable, and the damage begins early. 2. It is the number of hits, not the concussions, that lead to CTE. 3. And, perhaps most importantly, not only are concussions not associated with CTE, researchers have been able to control for concussions and even remove them entirely from the analysis.

From the CNN longform report:

“I think [this research] really reinforces, as we have suspected, [the idea] that it’s not concussion per se, it’s the exposure to multiple head impacts,” said Dr. Julian Bailes, the director of neurosurgery and co-director of NorthShore University HealthSystem Neurological Institute, who was not involved in the study. Bailes was one of the first researchers to connect repeated head trauma to neurological damage in football players.

The full story is worth your attention. However, I don’t think anyone can seriously doubt the words of principal investigator, Dr. Goldstein, when he says: “Most hits to the head are not concussive ... but no one is paying any attention to them.”

This is serious, and should be seriously addressed. Without fundamental changes to the structure of the game, and the equipment of the players, the sport itself risks falling into obsolescence, either by decreased participation or litigation. And, despite football’s reign as America’s sport, my money is on the latter: The NFL, the NCAA and other big money stakeholders may try to hem, haw, deny, harangue, spin, or otherwise delay the inevitable, but changes are coming sooner rather than later -- and they must. Better a metamorphosis than oblivion.