As a sports policy analyst, I’ve learned a lot more about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in athletes than I ever expected to. Actually, at this point, I’ve learned more than I really want to know.
CTE is a terrible degenerative disease, and it takes an immense toll on those who are stricken, as well as their families and friends.
I recently came across another heart-wrenching story about a former football player who died way too young, a victim of CTE’s deadly claws. The New York Times piece by Ken Belson was tough to read, but instructive, regarding CTE’s vicious impact (see A Football Player’s Descent into Pain and Paranoia).
Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, a star at the University of Washington and a four-year veteran of the National Football League (Tampa Bay and Philadelphia), was found dead at age 30 with a mix of alcohol and painkillers in his body. Upon autopsy, neuroscientists found CTE in his brain.
His last years included typical CTE symptoms: paranoia, memory lapses, angry outbursts, disorientation, depression, etc. His personality at the end was almost a complete reversal of the one family and friends knew for most of his life: easygoing, giving, sincere.
It’s estimated that Te’o-Nesheim suffered nearly 100 concussions during his playing days (10 of which left him unconscious).
Toward the end of his playing career, Te’o-Nesheim became more and more distant. He stopped replying to emails from family and friends. When he did talk to them by phone, he sounded like a different person.
“It was scary and we tried to reach out, but could not get him to open up,” said his sister Marie.
After his NFL days (Tampa Bay released him in 2013), his paranoia deepened. He lived in hotels and was constantly on the move. He thought he was being followed and thought maids were going through his trash. He believed someone was using his credit card only to discover that he had made the purchases and forgotten. He thought someone was “inside” his computers so he would destroy them and buy new ones … again and again.
Eventually, Te’o-Nesheim realized he was in trouble. He was suffering physically and mentally. For years, he hid a lot of his health problems from friends and family, but in 2017 he reached out to Sam Katz, a Beverly Hills lawyer who helps former players obtain disability benefits. Te’o-Nesheim also asked Katz how to go about donating his brain to science.
After his death, the family of Te’o-Nesheim donated his brain to the Boston University CTE Center, where CTE was discovered in his brain.
“It’s always surprising and disturbing to see so many lesions in a guy who was just 30,” said the Center’s Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist and one of the world’s premier experts on CTE.
Unfortunately, coming across stories like this is becoming less and less surprising, but increasingly disturbing.
Research has shown that CTE-related symptoms happen more frequently in players who start tackle football before the age of 12. Te’o-Nesheim began playing tackle football at age 11. Between youth, high school, college and pro football, he played the game for half his life.
It’s important to note that CTE isn’t just an issue for former NFL players. While Boston University’s CTE Center has discovered CTE in the brains of 110 of 111 former NFL players, it has also found CTE in the brains of 48 of 53 former college players. Those college players didn’t go on to play football in the NFL. In addition, 21 per cent of the 14 brains of former high school football players studied at the centre had evidence of CTE. And those players never played a single down of football beyond high school.
Moreover, this is not just a concussion issue. Repetitive sub-concussive impacts to the brain may be as damaging long-term – if not more so – than concussions to the brains of athletes in high-contact sports, especially football.
“There’s something to the play of football that damages the brain,” says McKee. “That, to me, is irrefutable.”
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.
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