Medical advancements that have been able to catalog the extent to which former players have suffered from CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Earlier this week, the results that came back that former Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler was suffering from CTE when he died. On Thursday, it was confirmed that former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill, who died last November at the age of 63, was also suffering from CTE.
CNN reported the news Thursday, confirming what had been feared and anticipated from the time McNeill died that, when his brain was examined, it was likely that CTE would be detected.
The acronym CTE is becoming more commonplace in the language of football. It is tied into repeated blows to the head and is most commonly found among athletes, especially those that played sports like football, boxing, mixed martial arts and hockey, and even professional wrestling.
McNeill played 12 seasons for the Vikings (1974-85) and fans were saddened when he was diagnosed with onset dementia several years ago and was later diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), which was ruled as the cause of death at his autopsy.
When Stabler died, his brain was sent to Boston University, which has become one of the go-to research facilities in the study of CTE and the disease’s growing prevalence among athletes from previous eras. The BU research team confirmed Stabler’s diagnosis, making him the 90th of 94 brains examined of former athletes that confirmed indications of CTE.
The CNN story details McNeill’s loss of mental capacity, which began with the most common of problems experienced by hundreds of NFL players – forgetting little things and needing to be reminded of daily chores and routines. He then began to have violent outbursts out of the blue. His symptoms started showing up in his 40s, less than 10 years after he was done with his NFL career.
McNeill’s wife Tia started researching brain injuries related to football and kept coming across the name Bennet Omalu, who was recently portrayed by Will Smith in the movie Concussion, which came out late in 2015.
The biggest problem in dealing with CTE is that the research into the illness is still in its infancy. Hundreds, if not thousands, of players from previous eras have died without having their brains examined because they were simply viewed as being “punchy.” The first commonality that was noticed with CTE is that it mimics the symptoms of Alzheimer’s but it starts several years earlier than most Alzheimer’s diagnoses are made.
The researchers have devised four categories of CTE degeneration – loss of some memory, mood swings, aggression and suicidal thoughts. Players like Junior Seau, Mike Webster and Dave Duerson, all of whom committed suicide to stop the intense pain and mood swings they were suffering from, are believed to have suffered from it.
With the current status of the best available medical advancements, CTE can’t be properly diagnosed in a living human being and can only be detected in an autopsy. As of now there is no cure and no way to regenerate the brain cells that die off as a result of CTE.
Former Viking Brent Boyd was experiencing the same type of symptoms in the early to mid-1970s and he claimed – both to Viking Update and to Congress – that the NFL was covering up clear indications that such post-concussion trauma was permanent and killing off players while claiming there was no incontrovertible connection between playing football and what we now know as CTE.
Boyd said at the time that the NFL was making a concerted effort to deny disability claims from former players, expressing his view of the league’s process of not paying out claims with the chilling phrase, “Delay, deny and hope they die.”
It is hoped that the concussion protocols that have been put in place will lessen the impact of CTE on players in their post-career lives. It hasn’t happened yet. It didn’t come soon enough to save players like McNeill, but, as the numbers continue to grow, it is hoped that players like McNeill, Stabler, Seau, Duerson and others will provide the medical community with the ammunition needed to mount a fight against this insidious disease in hopes that someday an early diagnosis can lead to the long-term health of players so they can enjoy their years after the crowd noise wanes.
For some, it will come too late, but perhaps their sacrifice for the game they loved will help preserve the game in the future and keep players as safe as they can be in a sport begat by violence.