The NFL Players Association is encouraging its members to see the new film “Concussion,” which starkly portrays the dementia and depression that have wracked former players suffering from a degenerative brain disease.
The union is preparing “to support any players who might see the film and have a particular reaction to some of the things portrayed. Because it is scary. And we know what happens to some players when they leave football,” said George Atallah, an assistant executive director at the NFL Players Association.
Scores of former players have been diagnosed with the brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, after their deaths. Scientists say CTE appears to be associated with both concussions and the lower-level “subconcussive hits” so common in football. Robert Stern, director of clinical research for Boston University’s CTE Center, has estimated that the typical NFL player takes up to 1,500 subconcussive hits in a single season.
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“Look, there are former players who’ve already seen the film who are thinking, ‘Is this gonna happen to me?’ And there are former players who already have certain issues who might see the film and go, ‘Is it going to get any worse?'” Atallah said.
Atallah said the union will also urge all former players to get a complete medical exam, including cognitive and neuropsychological tests and a brain MRI, through the union’s Brain and Body program.
STAT also reached out to all 32 NFL teams to ask about their plans for responding to the movie, which opens Friday. None of the teams would respond to specific questions.
The NFL said it does not plan to distribute information to teams or players in response to the movie. A league spokesperson said the NFL welcomes “any conversation about player heath and safety.”
Dr. Betsy Nabel, the NFL’s chief health and medical advisor, told STAT this fall that CTE is “very complicated from a medical perspective, and I think it’s also complicated from a media-messaging perspective.”
Nabel said she was concerned that media coverage of the posthumous diagnosis of CTE in 87 former NFL players had raised public anxiety about the dangers of football “without any direct evidence” that multiple concussions cause long-term brain disease.
“We shouldn’t jump to conclusions until we understand the full medical and scientific basis” for linking hits to the head with CTE, she said.
NFL concussions and head injuries by year and by team
In recent years the NFL has implemented new rules to reduce concussions among players. But with two weeks to go in the 2015 regular season, players have already suffered more concussions than in either of the previous two seasons. Here are the recent statistics, by team.
That statement drew fire from Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon and member of the traumatic brain injury committee at the NFL Players Association. Not everyone who suffers multiple blows to the head will develop CTE, he said, but it’s clear from the evidence so far that some will.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Bailes said. “And all the naysayers, there’s never yet been an alternative scientific explanation. OK, well, if it’s not hitting your head 100,000 times, what is it? Is it the water you’re drinking? Is it a virus? What is it that’s causing your brain to break down?”
Karen Weintraub contributed to this report