Scientists are hopeful about the role of cannabis in treatment programs and as a preventative measure for brain injuries such as CTE

When forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu’s autopsy uncovered something amiss in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers star Mike Webster in 2002 it set off a firestorm of controversy within and around professional football.

Omalu found that Webster’s brain had significant tissue degeneration, along with a destructive buildup of tau proteins, which Omalu attributed to Webster’s football career where he played center—a position that led to multiple concussions, and, according to some doctors, the equivalent of “25,000 automobile crashes.”

Mike Webster had always been a bright, articulate, and well-liked guy. As a result of his head injuries, however, he suffered from severe cognitive decline, as well as depression, amnesia, aggression, and acute pain. Living out of his pickup truck or in train stations near the end of his life, Webster died “penniless, broken and semi-deranged” at age 50.

Naming the condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), Dr. Omalu innocently believed his discovery would help bring an end to the suffering and early deaths of scores of professional football players. But Omalu was in for a rude awakening. Rather than provoking curiosity and sounding the alarms for further research, the NFL began working overtime to silence Omalu, and discredit him and his research. As UK’s Independent said, “A $10 billion-a-year industry wasn’t going to be emasculated by some do-good immigrant doctor.”

After years of further research, including several dozen autopsies of former NFL players, and increasing public pressure, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell agreed to convene a “concussion summit” to further explore the issue. Omalu, however, was not invited to the summit, and, not surprisingly, the summit proved to be a sham. The NFL continued to stridently deny a link between football and CTE.

Alas, the failure to fully acknowledge and take responsibility for the connection between football and CTE continues to this day.

To be sure, no red-blooded American wants to see the end of professional football, or even a tackle-free version of the sport. Neither do most Americans want to be guilty of glorifying a sport that slowly kills its players. But is there another way out?

Understanding CTE

No one doubts the need for further research into the causes and effects of CTE, but many things are already clear. First, there’s an undeniable link between football and CTE, which at least one individual in the National Football League, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, acknowledged to Congress in 2016. When U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky asked if the link between CTE and football has been established, Miller said, “The answer to that question is certainly yes.”

Moreover, ESPN’s Steve Fainaru said, “we know that, at this point, 90 out of the 94 deceased NFL players who have been examined for the disease have been diagnosed with it.” These numbers are clearly alarming. The high percentage (96%), however, is likely due, in part, to selection bias; the brains that were tested came from NFL players who were worried they had CTE.

We also know that football players are not the only ones at risk. In fact, professional boxers may have an even greater chance of developing CTE. But the harsh reality is that any sport or activity—including ice hockey, horseback riding or skateboarding, for example—that leads to repetitive brain trauma (including symptomatic concussions, but also ”asymptomatic sub-concussive hits,” according to Boston University’s CTE Center) may, ultimately, lead to CTE.

[How Hard of a Hit Does It Take? For perspective, scientists believe it takes a G-force of about 40 to 80 Gs to constitute a “sub-concussive hit”—one which does not result in a concussion, but could cause brain damage if repeated over time. According to physics professor Chad Orzel, jumping off of a 3-foot tall platform would be about 10 Gs (assuming your knees are bent only slightly). Sneezing is about 3 Gs. Most roller coasters are about 4 to 6 Gs A typical fall would be about 15 Gs (unless your head hits hard ground first—then it could be up to 80 to 100 Gs, and may cause a concussion.). A punch from a heavyweight boxer would be about 50 to 60 Gs. And a concussion caused by a football tackle could be 100 to 150 Gs or more. See Hip-Tec scale below.]

What is also clear is that CTE can lead to a whole host of problems including “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and eventually progressive dementia.” Those suffering from CTE have even been known to take their own lives. “Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Terry Long committed suicide by drinking a gallon of antifreeze. Dave Duerson and Junior Seau shot themselves in the chest. Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then drove to the Chiefs practice facility,” writes Dr. Geier, “where he shot himself in the head.” Pittsburgh Steelers Adrian Robinson hung himself, as did New England Patriots Aaron Hernandez, who was in prison for the murder of Odin Lloyd.

The dangers that professional football poses to the player’s brains is causing more than a few players to walk away from lucrative contracts. NFL’s Chris Borland, linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, for example, made headlines in 2016 when he retired after only one year over concerns of head trauma. Only 24 at the time, Borland returned three-quarters of his 4-year rookie signing bonus—nearly a half a million dollars. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland said referring to the dangers inherent in professional football; “from what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

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