The sad diagnosis was not surprising. On Thursday, the National Institutes of Health revealed that Junior Seau, the 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker who committed suicide in May, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the debilitating brain disease associated with football head trauma. CTE can only be diagnosed postmortem. “Specifically, the neuropathologists found abnormal, small clusters called neurofibrillary tangles of a protein known as tau within multiple regions of Mr. Seau’s brain,” wrote the NIH, which examined Seau’s brain, in a statement. “Tau is a normal brain protein that folds into tangled masses in the brain cells of patients with Alzheimer’s disease and a number of other progressive neurological disorders. The regional brain distribution of the tau tangles observed in this case is unique to CTE and distinguishes it from other brain disorders.”
“The type of findings seen in Mr. Seau’s brain have been recently reported in autopsies of individuals with exposure to repetitive head injury, including professional and amateur athletes who played contact sports, individuals with multiple concussions, and veterans exposed to blast injury and other trauma.” ESPN/ABC first reported the NIH’s finding: the Seau family requested that the results be made public.
This news comes a few weeks after a Boston University study detailed 33 cases of CTE — 15 of them previously unpublicized — in deceased ex-NFL players. Some 4,000 ex-players, plus nearly 1,500 of their spouses and children, have joined a class action suit against the NFL, claiming that the league “deliberately ignored and actively concealed” information about concussions for decades. Expect that number to now grow, says Paul Anderson, an attorney who has closely studied the concussion case for his blog, nflconcussionlitigation.com. “There was a really a spike in plaintiffs after Seau’s death,” says Anderson. “For many players, the concussion issue was a little under the radar beforehand. Given Seau’s high profile, it really made players focus on the potential harms of concussions. I expect a similar effect from the CTE diagnosis.” (Seau’s family has not decided whether or not to join the suit, according to ESPN.com).
Seau did not have a history of diagnosed concussions. Seau may have masked symptoms — he had a reputation for being fearless — or Seau’s CTE could have resulted from hundreds of smaller-impact, “sub-concussive hits” sustained over a 20-year NFL career. Ex-players know they are at risk for CTE symptoms, like memory loss and mood swings. An award from the suit could help fund future medical treatment.
Still, legal experts consider the suit’s success a long-shot. The NFL has filed a motion to dismiss the case: the league argues that the negligence claims are matters of collective bargaining, not the courts. Even if the judge rules that the case can proceed to discovery, and evidence emerges that the NFL was more aware of the dangers of concussions than it had previously let on — or that it tried to conceal them — the “chain of causation” will be a steep hurdle for the players. Concussions are not like broken arms: clearly visible, and caused by a singular event. If a player has symptoms of head trauma, can you prove that a particular NFL hit was responsible? What about hits from a player’s pee wee, high school, and college careers? What role did they play?
All these issues may take years to sort out. Here’s what’s certain: Seau’s diagnosis is another dark day for the NFL, and the future of football.