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Gronk’s retirement becomes a flashpoint in CTE debate

Phil Simms shares stories of his interactions with Rob Gronkowski and crowns him the best tight end in NFL history.

Less than a week after Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski retired, rank speculation regarding the reasons for his departure from the game has become the latest skirmish in the fight between doctors who jump to conclusions regarding brain trauma and those who have preached patience.

Dr. Ann McKee, one of the leading CTE researchers, has pounced on Gronk’s retirement as proof that concerns regarding Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy influence decisions regarding the duration of football careers.

I was relieved,” Dr, McKee told BU Today regarding her reaction to the news. “Reading between the lines about Rob Gronkowski, he’s had big hits. He’s read the headlines. He has said playing football abuses the body and abuses the brain.”

That quote from Dr. McKee prompted a response on Twitter from Dr. Peter Cummings, a forensic pathologist and a neuropathologist who like Dr. McKee works at Boston University and who points out that his colleague is taking liberties with Gronk’s quote, and that he never said anything about football abusing the brain: “Abusing your body isn’t what your brain wants. When your body is abused, it can bring down your mood.”

Here’s the full quote from Gronkowski, uttered days before what would be his final game: “The season’s a grind. It’s up and down. I’m not going to lie and sit here and say every week is the best. Not at all. You go up, you go down. You can take some serious hits. To tell you the truth, just try and imagine getting hit all the time and trying to be where you want to be every day in life. It’s tough, it’s difficult. To take hits to the thigh, take hits to your head. Abusing your body isn’t what your brain wants. When your body is abused, it can bring down your mood. You’ve got to be able to deal with that, too, throughout the season. You gotta be able to deal with that in the games.”

“I know he’s a goofball, but he’s intelligent,” Dr. McKee said of Gronkowski. “I think he does recognize that the brain is a very precious part of you, and you don’t get a second chance with it.”

Regardless of whether CTE fears were a factor in Gronk’s decision-making process (I’d heard over a year ago that family members were pushing Gronk to quit due to concussion concerns, possibly fear stoked by the likes of Dr. McKee), Dr. McKee believes that players have begun to consider CTE when deciding whether to call it quits.

“With the active players, there was this imaginary curtain -- we’re not going to go there, not going to look at what might happen,” McKee said. “But now I do see players talking about CTE; they mention protecting their brain. And even if they don’t discuss CTE amongst themselves, they definitely are aware of it. They’re also getting more information from family members. CTE isn’t just a personal disease, it affects the whole family. Players talk to their wives, girlfriends, parents, and their level of concern is higher than it used to be.”

Of course it is, because of people like Ann McKee. That was precisely the point of last month’s article in The Lancet, one of the leading peer-reviewed medical journals.

“Unfortunately, the uncertainties around the clinical syndrome and the pathological definition of CTE are not acknowledged adequately in much of the current research literature or related media reporting, which at times has resembled science by press conference,” the article explained. “Too often an inaccurate impression is portrayed that CTE is clinically defined, its prevalence is high, and pathology evaluation is a simple positive or negative decision. This distorted reporting on CTE might have dire consequences. Specifically, individuals with potentially treatable conditions, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, might make decisions on their future on the basis of a misplaced belief that their symptoms inevitably herald an untreatable, degenerative brain disease culminating in dementia.”

The message is clear: Doctors (including Dr. Ann McKee) still don’t know nearly enough about how people get CTE, what it means to have CTE, and what can happen to someone who has CTE. Vague, dire warnings about CTE cause unnecessary fear and confusion, with former players worried that they have a ticking time bomb in their brain and current players possibly walking away prematurely due to a subject that remains in the infant stage of its overall research and understanding.

The Lancet specifically warned that the “uncertainties” regarding CTE are not “acknowledged adequately,” and that some are engaged in “science by press conference.” For Dr. McKee, this time around it appears to be science by sit-down interview, with an effort to use Gronk’s retirement decision as the latest billboard for convincing more Chris Borlands to quit football long before they otherwise would, regardless of whether the actual science of CTE supports such decisions.