Aaron Hernandez’s CTE fuels NFL concussion crisis

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GRAPHIC BY YING YANG

By JENIBELLE HSU
STAFF WRITER

 Meet Aaron Hernandez: the latest victim of football’s concussion epidemic.

 From 2010 to 2012, Hernandez played for the New England Patriots. At his peak, he caught a touchdown pass in the 2012 Super Bowl, but later committed murder and ended his life during his sentence.

 On Nov. 9, Boston University’s neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee publically announced that Hernandez suffered from a neurodegenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Although this condition is found in many football players, the deceased 27-year-old reached Stage 3 CTE, which has never been found in anyone less than 46 years old.

 Ultimately, Hernandez’s case refuels the National Football League’s (NFL) ongoing concussion crisis. With growing awareness for the dangers of concussions, the vocational risk has prompted early retirements and alarmed parents of NFL superstars.

 In retrospect, Hernandez and other victims of brain trauma did not receive adequate medical treatment and attention from the NFL, even though the organization could prevent complications such as CTE.

 For example, his family sued the NFL on Sept. 21, declaring that the Patriots should have looked for CTE symptoms during annual preseason exams.  The NFL deserves partial responsibility for Hernandez’s diagnosis because it overlooked his health in the last stretch of his football career.

 However, many argue that his CTE bears little connection to his NFL stunts since the league recorded only one “minor” concussion. Furthermore, he accumulated more concussions in his college and high-school years. Therefore, the concussion epidemic spread beyond the NFL and infected the overall sport.

 Regardless, the NFL must consider Hernandez’s prior concussions, rather than just its own documentations, in order to avoid further brain damage. As a professional league, the NFL must care for its players appropriately by providing high-risk players with proper medical attention and sharing up-to-date research with its coaches and doctors.

 Aside from Hernandez’s case, the league repeatedly failed to protect its players. For example, CTE was also discovered in Pittsburgh Steelers legend Mike Webster. Unanimously, Webster’s doctors traced his dementia to his 17-year NFL career.  Furthermore, San Diego Charger linebacker Junior Seau was diagnosed with CTE in 2012, although the NFL did not document any concussions in his 20-year professional career.

 Unfortunately, the list goes on. These past cases strongly suggest that concussions have significant yet hidden complications that the league did not effectively address in its return-to-play guidelines and post-concussion therapy. Since NFL veterans played through head injuries and inadequate counseling, they may not know how to cope with their lifelong complications.

  Despite the NFL’s dark history, its future looks bright. As part of its Play Smart. Play Safe. initiative, the NFL recently disclosed that 459 concussions occurred during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, displaying the league’s growing awareness of the concussion crisis. The NFL also shared the data with helmet manufacturers in order to improve players’ protective equipment. Although these steps are just the beginning, the NFL finally takes action to soften the fatal sport and ensure the next generation can pursue their passion without the threat of CTE.  

 In essence, the NFL must work with its players, doctors and policymakers to secure the safety and health of the young stars long after they stepped away from the spotlight. When Hernandez joined his NFL team, he said, “you get changed by the Patriot Way.” Hopefully, such way of life will not distort your the rest of your life.

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