…you don't need to have had known or reported concussions to develop this brain disease. [chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)]. It really shows us that those multiple, repetitive sub-concussive blows to the head that are experienced by so many athletes in many different sports can bring on the beginnings of this disease."
Dr Robert Stern

A while ago, Malcolm Gladwell gave a public lecture at the University of Pennsylvania on the subject of “proof.” He asked: What do we need to know about the harmfulness of college and professional football before we take action? That may range from complete banning of the game to somehow taking steps to reduce the likelihood of injury, especially to the brain.

Gladwell began by discussing the very lengthy time it took for society to do something about the seriousness of black-lung disease among miners. Then he moved on to the matter of recent deaths that have occurred among football players

Not surprisingly what counts as proof for Gladwell are examples of players who have died as a result of brain injuries incurred during their playing days. It doesn’t take more than a very small number, perhaps only one, for Gladwell to “prove” the harmfulness of the game.

And then, in the light of that evidence, to take action, not waiting for more evidence, more deaths and if so how many. Rather doing something now to insure it will not happen again.

He pointed to the hazards of this hard-hitting game by citing several examples of players who had committed suicide and where autopsies of their brain discovered a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

They included Junior Seau who had played in the NFL for 20 years, Dave Duerson, Terry Long and Andre Waters who shot themselves to death, and the linebacker Jovan Belcher who killed his girl friend and then himself.

According to Liz Neporent, “Of the 34 former NFL players who have died and donated their brains to research, the percentage of them who have pathologically confirmed CTE is staggering – over 90 percent, a 2009 University of Michigan report found.”

And before an audience of Penn students, Gladwell brought up the case of 21-year-old Penn college football player Owen Thomas who committed suicide and whose autopsy indicated he had mild stages of the same type of brain damage seen in athletics who have played much longer.

These occurred in spite of continuing improvements in the design of helmets and modifications in the rules of the game to reduce these risks. But players today are bigger, stronger and faster than they used to be.

Gladwell confined his remarks to football. But what about all those other rough and tumble sports—hockey, rugby, wrestling and boxing, where the likelihood of major brain injury is just as likely?

In his lecture he argued forcefully for the complete elimination of the “brutal” game of football. “Brutal” because of the cumulative effects of blows to the head that almost all football players experience.

He argued that football has no place in colleges or university settings where something called an education is supposed to be occurring. (At Reed College, where I taught for many years, there was no football team. But “Ultimate Frisbee” was wildly popular.) In Gladwell’s view, the enormous financial benefit to the institution from all those well-healed alumni is no justification for continuing to maintain a football team.

Gladwell is a cool and effective speaker. If you’re interested in this subject have a look: