Updated findings from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University found chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in 87 out of 91 deceased former NFL players, according to Frontline. The study looked at 165 individuals in total, all of whom played some level of football -- professional, semi-pro, college or high school -- before they passed away. CTE was found in 131, or 79 percent, of those individuals. That number jumped up to 96 percent just among NFL players.
Frontline notes that the findings may be skewed. CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously, and many of the players studied may have suspected that they were suffering from some sort of brain disease before they decided to have their brains donated.
Still, the findings are potentially damning to a league that has been criticized for not taking concussions and the long-term impact of head injuries seriously. Dr. Ann McKee, who ran the joint lab between the VA and BU, said that the results are consistent with past research that shows a link between football and brain disease.
"People think that we're blowing this out of proportion, that this is a very rare disease and that we're sensationalizing it," said McKee, who runs the lab as part of a collaboration between the VA and BU. "My response is that where I sit, this is a very real disease. We have had no problem identifying it in hundreds of players."
The NFL released a statement expressing its support towards research efforts.
In a statement, a spokesman for the NFL said, "We are dedicated to making football safer and continue to take steps to protect players, including rule changes, advanced sideline technology, and expanded medical resources. We continue to make significant investments in independent research through our gifts to Boston University, the [National Institutes of Health] and other efforts to accelerate the science and understanding of these issues."
There appears to be some evidence that the NFL has created a safer environment for players. The NFL said that total concussions dropped 35 percent in 2014 compared to 2012. Another analysis by Frontline estimated the decrease at 28 percent, which is smaller, but still significant.
At the same time, the NFL has been slow to acknowledge the damaging effects of the big impacts inherent in football, lest we forget that Dr. Joseph Maroon is still employed as the Steelers neurosurgeon. Maroon called the problem of CTE "over-exaggerated," and defended youth football by saying, "it's much more dangerous riding a bike or a skateboard." Just a few years ago, the league backed studies that denied links between concussions and brain damage.