The big issue still looming over the big game

The National Football League (NFL) has not had a particularly good year from a public image standpoint. A number of scandals have distracted from the action on the field, from the serious concern over the league’s handling of domestic violence issues to the absurd circus of “Deflategate,” which saw the Patriots defending themselves from allegations that they illegally tampered with game balls.

But looming in the background, as it has for a number of years now, is the fact that football is dangerous for players’ neurological health. Recent research has shown the lingering effect of concussion, and even in the absence of an acute incident of a player “getting his bell rung,” chronic traumatic encephalopathy brought on by countless smaller hits is still a specter haunting the sport.

With the Super Bowl on Sunday, all the attention of football fans will be focused at the professional level, but when it comes to thinking about players’ health, we have to start younger.

That was the takeaway from a study presented at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) meeting a couple months ago. Researchers from Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., followed members of a local high school football team and found young players have brain changes detectable with MRI after a single season of play, even in the absence of concussion.

Hopefully, the study will refocus efforts into studying football’s effect on neurological health on younger players as well as those at more advanced levels. Approximately 70 percent of U.S. football players overall are participating at the youth and high school level.

“The vast majority of studies that are out there, that you’re seeing in the news and that are being published in the literature, really focus on college and NFL players,” said Christopher T. Whitlow, MD, PhD, MHA, associate professor of radiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine and radiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, when he presented the findings at RSNA. “That’s interesting because they’re a relatively small group of football players.”

It’s imperative that we understand the game’s effect on young players, so we can make the sport safer for the next generation of Super Bowl contenders.

-Evan Godt
Editor – Health Imaging