Dr. Ann McKee, Football’s Ally or Enemy?

Dr. Ann McKee is villainized by some as the woman who wants to kill football. McKee, a world class neuroscientist who has written widely on many neurodegenerative diseases including: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Frontotemporal Degeneration, Corticobasal Degeneration and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). She is met with hostility by the NFL, and it could be because her eventual findings could lead to huge changes in the fast-paced, hard-hitting, game of football that we all love and pay big dollars for. Lets just say that the thought of a brainy, brawny, blonde women walking in and dissecting a major part of what is wrong (or right?) with their sport is not exactly welcome with open arms:

“This is a problem that is not going to be solved by (helmet) technology,” McKee said. “The helmet industry may improve, perhaps, conditions, but because the brain is floating inside your skull — and think of the skull as nature’s helmet — the helmet really protects the surface of the head. It doesn’t prevent that acceleration and deceleration that’s happening inside the skull.

“I don’t see that there’s any way of lowering the incidence of this without changing the way the game is played. I’m sure it’s going to be incredibly unpopular, but it’s going to have to be a game that maybe isn’t such a violent sport, that doesn’t have the thousands of sub-concussive hits that occur in every season.

“That’s what really distinguishes football from the rest of sports, the frequency of mild repetitive injuries. Maybe we change the type or number of practices, or maybe change the game entirely in a really unpopular way.”

McKee has dedicated most of her current time to solving CTE issues in military victims and athletes. So far she has found CTE in 70+ athletes, or 80% of those she has examined. For former NFL players, her mark is 18/19 brains infected with CTE, a disease that cannot be diagnosed until a victim is deceased.

People are starting to take notice. On June 13th  Pop Warner football banned head-to-head hits and limited contact in practice to 40 minutes a day. Before that, on May 2nd  Junior Seau was found dead from suicide, a gun shot to the chest. He let a suicide note behind, requesting his brain be sent to Dr. McKee for examination. She diagnosed CTE within 30 seconds of looking at his brain.

Before you are completely sold that McKee is poised to kill our beloved game of football as we know it, I would suggest that she actually may be trying to save football from itself.

Let’s be honest, how much longer can a game go on that is causing high rates of its former players to have all kinds of problems related to brain injuries such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, death, and CTE? How long can the NFL support a business that will be facing lawsuit after lawsuit and former employees either dead or crazy by the time they are 50?

The answer is in fundamental changes. Concussion awareness has risen in the past 3-5 years, but it is time for a change in the rules. The NFL needs to use research from scientists such as McKee to find the right way to keep the sport going. If kids are forced to play flag football until they are 14 then so be it. If contact has to be limited in high school to 1-2 times a week including game day, then that’s fine. If an NFL player has to take 11 tests to get back on the field after being concussed, then that is okay as well.  The argument that the players accept the various risks associated with head injures and play anyways is dead. Any industry continues to improve safety standards to maximize safety and usage of current technology. The NFL needs to speed up their improvements.

The game that many across America have accepted as their past time is in need of some fundamental and drastic changes. It is no longer okay to support the gladiator mentality, because it is no longer sustainable. It is time for the NFL and Roger Goodell to lose their bravado-filled, stubborn mind set, and accept the findings of their own staff, doctors, trainers, and scientists.

Recently, Terry Bradshaw, the former Steelers quarterback who now receives treatment for short-term memory loss at the Amen Clinic in Newport Beach, California, told Jay Leno: “In the next decade, we will not see football as it is.”

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