Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Concussion: The denial of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the NFL

Update: January 3 - We just got back from seeing the movie, and I highly recommend it. It's unquestionably the best Will Smith movie I've seen and a powerful (true) story about science and science denial. Well worth a couple of hours of your time.

Update: February 7 - For Super Bowl Sunday, the Harvard Humanist Hub hosted a panel discussion on The Complicated Sport of Football (video embedded at the bottom of this post).

My wife and I were married on Super Bowl Sunday (XXII). For our anniversary this year, I'd like for her to take me to the movies. This blog post is her hint.

Concussion was released by Columbia Pictures on the first day of Newtonmas - only one week after the new Star Wars movie released. I haven't seen either film yet, but I'm looking forward to seeing Concussion. As Joe Nickell explains, the NFL's League of Denial is "reminiscent of earlier instances of science denial—for example, the refusals by tobacco and oil companies to admit that respectively, cigarette smoking causes cancer and carbon emissions produce global warming."

Dr. Julian Bailes, the former Steelers team physician played by Alec Baldwin in the movie, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the science behind Concussion is "very accurate," but he takes issue with the movie's portrait of longtime Steelers neurosurgeon Joseph Maroon as an obstructionist and villain. While the science of concussion and brain injury itself and its relationship to a game played at almost every secondary school in the country is still evolving, apologists for this moral abomination want to reform it to make it safer - and there's a lot of money in that.

Another former Steeler employee and concussion "expert" (MacArthur genius in 2011) at UNC Chapel Hill says the concern is overblown and worries that it might create unnecessary paranoia:
"It was very entertaining movie, certainly made for Hollywood. (It's) based on a true story, but they certainly twisted the truth in certain parts of the movie to keep it entertaining...We have no idea how many people in the United States, or in the world, might have CTE and what the risk factors may be. There may be genetic predisposition to this that just hasn’t been uncovered yet...There are far more benefits to being active participants in sport than there are the risks and consequences around concussions for the millions of kids we’re trying to keep active to prevent childhood obesity and diabetes."
 - Kevin Guskiewicz (WRAL)
WRAL describes Guskiewicz as a "neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied concussions for more than two decades," but his CV indicates that his PhD (as well as undergraduate and graduate education) is in sports medicine - not neuroscience. Still, one doesn't have to be a neuroscientist to recognize that we do have some ideas about the risk factors here - repeated brain trauma - and the consequences - chronic neurodegenerative disease over time in a substantial minority of players (as well as many remaining questions about CTE). And it's easy to agree with Dr. Steven Novella that banning all contact sports would be an extreme solution for CTE (not proportional to the evidence and the potential risk) - and to acknowledge that Guskiewicz is an expert in sports medicine who is trying to make contact sports like football safer. Good for him.

But I think there are better ways to prevent childhood obesity and diabetes, and unnecessary paranoia about CTE doesn't seem to be a real issue - nor do the consequences seem all that bad if it were (players quitting?). Besides, there's lots of other issues with football. We shouldn't ban it, but you really should quit watching it. Or would you prefer adding some wild animals and convicted criminals...and maybe a sword instead?

"The provocator"
Image Credit:


  1. NPR: How A Simple Bump Can Cause An Insidious Brain Injury

    It's not just football players or troops who fought in the wars who suffer from brain injuries. Researchers estimate that hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in the U.S. get potentially serious brain injuries every year, too. Yet they and even their doctors often don't know it.

  2. Domonique Foxworth: 7-year NFL veteran Domonique Foxworth saw 'Concussion' and it made him question everything

    Good movies can make you empathize with the characters, but when you leave the theater you return to reality. Your heart rate decreases. You don’t really care if the leading man gets to the airport before his love leaves forever. You no longer fear the monster lunging out from around a corner. But for me, Concussion was different.

  3. LA Times: Autopsy finds concussion-related brain changes in 25-year-old former football player

    Researchers have found the hallmarks of chronic traumatic encephalopathy throughout the brain of a 25-year-old former college football player who sustained more than 10 concussions during about 16 years on the gridiron.