Published 6:29 PM EDT Oct 24, 2018
The national conversation about sports, head trauma, concussions and CTE took a curious turn this week. An op-ed written by the co-authors of a new book with the provocative title “Brainwashed: The Bad Science Behind CTE and the Plot to Destroy Football” debunks the ground-breaking work of Dr. Ann McKee at Boston University and chastises the news media for picking on football as a cause of CTE.
Ask the authors who’s behind this plot to destroy our most popular game, as I did in a phone interview Wednesday, and there’s no clear answer. It took several tries before co-author Merril Hoge, a former NFL player and ESPN analyst, mentioned “the headlines…the New York Times…Concussion Legacy (Foundation)…Boston University.”
So far this season, the NFL appears to be having a resurgence in interest and TV ratings, so as plots go, this one doesn’t seem to be working very well. When presented with that information, Hoge said it’s more about youth football, trying to destroy that.
One might look at it another way, as seeing concerned parents reassessing their children’s sports preferences, with more emphasis on avoiding head injuries and other serious problems not only in football, but in all kinds of youth sports, including soccer, ice hockey and basketball.
The plot twists can come quickly in this saga. Hoge is an interesting pitchman for the “let’s not come down too hard on football” crowd, considering he was forced to retire from the game after two concussions.
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And he and co-author Peter Cummings, an assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology with the Boston University School of Medicine who has also written a book titled “The Neuropathology of Zombies,” employ an unorthodox way of making their case.
Well into our nearly one-hour-long conversation about their Yahoo Sports op-ed and other theories in defense of football, I asked them both if football causes head injuries.
“Sure, definitely,” Cummings said, quickly and willingly. “I don’t think anyone would deny that it causes head injury.”
Just as swiftly, he said, “Again, here we are, what do you mean by head injury?”
Hoge interrupted. “I think you need to define what you mean by head injury. I could say slipping in the shower causes a head injury because that’s how my son got his first concussion.”
So I followed up: Does football cause CTE?
“There’s no scientific evidence of that,” Hoge said.
“I don’t think we know the answer to that yet,” Cummings said.
If this is a battle between these co-authors and the nation’s renowned experts, it’s time to invoke the mercy rule. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says CTE “is believed to be caused in part by exposure to repetitive head impacts, including concussions as well as subconcussive trauma.” It also says “the greatest risk factor for CTE is the number of years of exposure to repeated head or brain injuries.”
The NFL itself has chimed in on this question. At a Congressional hearing in 2016, Jeff Miller, then the NFL’s executive vice president for health and safety, said there is a link between football and CTE.
"Well, certainly, Dr. McKee's research shows that a number of retired NFL players were diagnosed with CTE, so the answer to that question is certainly yes, but there's also a number of questions that come with that," Miller said.
In their op-ed, Hoge and Cummings call the evidence of football causing CTE “pseudoscience,” laying out their case by saying that McKee’s 2017 bombshell study that found signs of CTE in 110 out of 111 brains of former NFL players had no control group as a comparison — no brains, say, from people who did not play football.
The only problem with that contention is that a 2015 Mayo Clinic study co-authored by McKee tested the brains of 198 individuals who had no exposure to contact sports in their lives — and not a single one of those 198 brains showed signs of CTE.
To recap: CTE was present in the brains of 110 out of 111 ex-NFL players, and in the brains of zero out of 198 people who did not play contact sports.
“I’m happy to ask Merril Hoge who to draft No. 1 next year,” Chris Nowinski, Ph.D., CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, said in a phone interview, “but we shouldn’t be asking him how to design research studies.”
Jokes aside, there’s a bigger issue at play, Nowinski said.
“Every time a football industry person belittles the issue of CTE within their sport, they are not just hurting football families, they also are hurting military families who need the science community to continue working together to find a cure for CTE.”
Now that’s a plot worthy of our attention.