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NFL doctor says CTE is being “over-exaggerated”

We’ve known about the condition known as “Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy” for several years now. From time to time, CTE takes center stage. And then it fades into the background again.

That’s partially because the condition remains largely shrouded in mystery, especially as it relates to the symptoms and consequences of microscopic changes to brain tissue resulting in the accumulation of tau protein. In an October 2013 item published at Deadspin, Dr. Matt McCarthy explained that there’s still no clear link between football and CTE, and more importantly between CTE and various cognitive problems that occur as football players age.

“At the 4th International Conference on Concussion in Sport . . . world experts gathered to discuss the state of head-trauma science,” Dr. McCarthy wrote at the time. “At the end of the conference, a consensus statement was released that said the following: ‘A cause and effect relationship has not as yet been demonstrated between CTE and concussions or exposure to contact sports.’

“The statement runs counter to almost everything you have read about CTE, but it received virtually no media attention in the United States when it was released,” Dr. McCarthy added. “In part, that’s because it speaks to the far higher burden of proof in the scientific community than the one in the public consciousness. But that’s the point. The popular consensus has far outstripped the science.”

For some, the popular consensus has become that playing football at any level means that the person who has played football at any level already has CTE, and that CTE is a time bomb that eventually will trigger the implosion of normal brain function. In the wake of the Chris Borland retirement, some in the media who don’t particularly like football and/or who would prefer that other sports overtake football in popularity and profitability and/or who believe that they can tie their own personal legacies in some way to the death of this American Goliath have trotted out the notion that football is inherently unsafe because in the normal course of playing football, head contact occurs, all football head contact results in CTE, and all CTE results in brain damage.

The NFL, which has suffered plenty of blows to its credibility in recent months, has given the football-always-leads-to-brain-damage crowd ammunition for influencing skeptics and undecideds by trotting out a long-time NFL neurologist who downplayed on NFL-owned TV the prevalence and the risks of CTE.

“I think the problem of CTE although real is it’s being over-exaggerated and it’s being extrapolated to youth football and to high school football,” Dr. Joseph Maroon said on Tuesday’s NFL Total Access.

He then shared some statistics that were a bit confusing, to say the least. I interpreted it to mean that 63 cases of CTE were found in youth football players over a 59-year period from 1954 through 2013, when 30-to-40 million kids played football. It wasn’t clear what Dr. Maroon was actually saying about CTE in youth football, and if the NFL plans to try to sell that all is well with doctors on the NFL payroll, anything any NFL doctor says needs to always be clear.

“It’s a rare phenomenon,” Dr. Maroon then explained. “We have no idea the incidence. There are more injuries to kids from falling off of bikes, scooters, falling in playgrounds, than there are in youth football. Again, it’s never been safer. Can we improve? Yes. We have to do better all the time to make it safer. But I think if a kid is physically able to do it and wants to do it, I think our job is to continue to make it safer. But it’s much more dangerous riding a bike or a skateboard than playing youth football.”

Despite the knee-jerk resistance to any self-serving thing the NFL says on this or any topic, it’s accurate assessment of the risks, even though the Fainaru-Wadas of the world now cling to the subtle-yet-disingenuous suggestion that risk of an accident is fundamentally different than the risk of head injuries resulting from playing football. Again, the popular (but flawed) argument has become: (1) football entails head contact; (2) all head contact results in CTE; and (3) all CTE results in brain damage.

Dr. McCarthy’s article from October 2013 suggests that the popular argument (which instantly has gotten far more popular in the wake of the Borland retirement) is incorrect. The problem for the NFL becomes, given the perception/reality that the league routinely sprinkles fertilizer over the public on matters of significance, that folks will now be disinclined to accept at face value whatever any NFL doctor or other NFL employee has to say on the matter. Which means that the NFL needs to tread lightly when trying to push back against a popular consensus regarding CTE, even if the popular consensus is fundamentally flawed

That’s not to say that anything/everything Dr. Maroon said was incorrect. But if Dr. Maroon’s assessment is indeed accurate, it becomes important for the NFL to get the truth out in a way that won’t invite criticism those who view anything/everything the NFL says with skepticism.