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It makes logical sense that repeated blows to the head can lead to brain damage.
We can say this now but it took the findings of Dr Bennet Omalu to make the link. He discovered that Mike Webster, an NFL player who died at the age of 50, had a progressive Brain disease present in his brain when he died. Dr Bennet Omalu called the disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and this was caused by repetitive blows to the head over time which he suffered throughout his NFL career. This was only 14 years ago and we are only just seeing the effects of this finding in the NFL and in our own Rugby League.
In a recent interview with the BBC Will Smith said ‘We watch it, we see hits, you see players go down… and then you applaud when they come back on again five minutes later. Once I had the science explained to me, it becomes so obvious that you can’t imagine how you didn’t see it before.’
Will Smith portrays Dr Bennet Omalu in a new Hollywood file called Concussion. This tells the story of how this young Nigerian forensic pathologist discovered the disease and made the link to the deceased’s profession.
150 cases of CTE have now been identified and most of them in NFL players. The symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s and include depression, memory loss, behavioural changes and sometimes dementia at an unusually early age.
This is not confined to professional NFL players or indeed to American Footballers this has huge implications for boxers and rugby players at all levels.
A report from the Mayo Clinic in December 2015 suggests that amateur athletes who play contact sports could also be in danger. Researchers analysed 66 brains donated for a study from men who played high school or college sports and found one-third f them had CTE. In a comparison of 198 donor brains from people with no records of playing contact sports, none had CTE.
Concerns over CTE have thrown a spotlight on rugby and as the Six Nations kicks off there are new guidelines aiming to offer players more protection and there is undoubtedly more awareness of the dangers of repeated head injured and the symptoms of concussion, which do not always lead to a loss of consciousness.