The rubber is about to meet the road for the NFL regarding players who had/have a history of multiple concussions and the development of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez filed suit against the New England Patriots and the NFL on behalf of her daughter Avielle Janelle Hernandez on Thursday, after autopsy results on Hernandez showed signs of severe CTE, the likes of which have never been documented in a 27 year-old.
In April 2017, Hernandez committed suicide in jail a day after being acquitted in a second murder trial against him. He was already in prison after being convicted of murdering his friend Odin Lloyd only a few months after signing a $40M contract with the Patriots in 2013.
While the NFL has been dancing around the CTE issue for years, this case stands at least a reasonable chance of forcing the NFL’s hand in terms of accepting liability for the mounting data of supporting evidence that playing football increases the risk of developing CTE over time. The whole issue is almost reminiscent of how, for decades, the tobacco industry tried to hide increasing evidence that smoking caused major health problems such as cancer and heart disease.
Like the tobacco industry, the NFL is a multi-billion dollar industry with a great deal at stake if the link between playing football (as it is played today) and the development of CTE can be clinically established. At this point in time the correlation between the variables has been established in a landmark study recently released by the Journal of the American Medical Association. We know the relationship exists, we just don’t know if it is a cause and effect relationship at this point.
Like tobacco, where the link may take several decades to show itself, CTE may take years for symptoms to become evident. However, unlike tobacco the symptoms of CTE sometimes involve behavioral changes that become difficult to sort out. Aggression, violence, suicide, irritability and depression can all be hallmark signs of a brain damaged by too many hits to the head.
What does this mean for the future of the NFL as a professional sport? Will the multi-billion dollar industry take the same tactic by obfuscating scientific findings for as long as possible?
One would certainly hope those in charge of strategic planning for the NFL would not want to go down that same “tobacco road”. Some in the media theorize the reason media ratings are down for the NFL over the last couple of years is because of Colin Kaepernick’s political stance, or that the political environment is somehow drawing people away from watching professional football.
Perhaps another reason might be because some football fans struggle with the ethics of supporting a multi-billion dollar industry attempting to control the implications of scientific data about CTE, just like the tobacco industry tried to control the narrative about smoking. Some fans, myself included, will be watching to see how all of this all unfolds with a jaded eye.
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