The Super Bowl is our country's national celebration of football, a game Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), calls our "collective societal intoxication and addiction."
From an entertainment perspective, football is more popular than ever. Attendance figures, television ratings and the growth of fantasy football tell us that.
However, while the game's popularity might be on the upswing, so is the scientific evidence that football is hazardous to the human brain. And it's not just concussions.
"In terms of the truth, it is not about concussions," said Omalu in a recent interview with sport and culture writer Patrick Hruby. "It is about blows to the head."
Long term, repetitive sub-concussive brain trauma can be as dangerous as a concussion.
"CTE is part of a spectrum [of brain damage]," explains Omalu. "When you suffer a blow--a single blow or repetitive--you may have immediate symptoms or may not have immediate symptoms.
"CTE is neurodegenerative. It gets worse. Concussion is part of the spectrum, but it is not the underlying cause. The underlying cause is [brain trauma], the factor that initiated the cascade of events."
A recent survey of NFL players conducted by the Associated Press, reveals that a large percentage of NFL players are in denial - or at least practicing avoidance behavior -- when it comes to the seriousness of brain trauma.
"Personally, I don't think about head injuries. They don't affect me," said the New York Giants' Nikita Whitlock.
"Not worried," said Jamize Olawale, a running back for the Oakland Raiders. "I think it's blown out of proportion."
What's your guess on whether or not Whitlock and Olawale saw the recent movie "Concussion," which starred Will Smith as Omalu, or "League of Denial," the PBS investigative documentary on concussions in the NFL?
Recent research has shown that CTE, which can only be diagnosed with an autopsy, is impacting football players at younger and younger ages, including multiple high school players.
Tyler Sash, a member of the Giants' 2012 Super Bowl championship team, died at the young age of 27. He was diagnosed last week with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The disease is linked to repeated brain trauma and associated with neurological symptoms such as memory loss, depression, wild mood swings and progressive dementia.
Based on the AP survey, it's clear NFL players need a better education when it comes to the effects of brain trauma. Nevertheless, in this day and age, the league's players are all adults, and at least generally aware of the dangers football represents to the human brain due to some widely-publicized concussion lawsuits involving the league.
It's a different story when it comes to the millions of youth and high school football players in this country who often don't know the risks they're taking on the football field. Making matters worse, many youth and high school football games and practices take place with no medical personnel on the field.
The average high school football lineman takes 1,000 -- 1,500 shots to the head during a single football season, according to Boston University researchers. As such, the human brain literally gets abused during a typical high school football campaign.
The picture isn't any prettier in Pop Warner and other youth leagues.
Consider a 2012 study done by Virginia Tech and Wake Forest researchers. The study measured the g-forces of impacts to the heads of 7-year-old tackle football players and found that the impacts in a 7-year-old football game were comparable to those found in an adult football game -- some of them at 40gs.
"It looks like a pillow fight," Chris Nowinski, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, said of peewee football games, "but the brain thinks it's in a war."
And the research is telling us that even if these young players walk off the field symptom free, it doesn't mean their brains haven't been injured.
A Purdue study revealed that high school football players who were concussion free and didn't have any symptoms from brain trauma, actually had brain tissue damage similar to those players who had suffered concussions. Think about that for just a second... it means our sons are suffering brain injuries from sub-concussive hits without coaches, trainers, parents or the athletes themselves even being aware of it.
An adult choosing to play football in the NFL for a nice salary is a completely different situation than adults allowing children with developing brains to play.
"If you are an adult, and you make up your mind to play [football], I will be the first to stand behind you and support your right to play," says Omalu. "But a child hasn't reached the age of consent. A child should become an adult before they make the decision to expose themselves to a harmful factor. This is the humanity of science."
That stance might be too extreme. But then again, if one reviews the research on football and brain trauma, and gains an understanding of the human toll CTE takes on athletes and their families, it might not be.
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