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Is Aaron Hernandez’s CTE a Wake-Up Call for the NFL?

In April 2017, only four years after he stopped playing football, Aaron Hernandez committed suicide in a jail cell. An autopsy recently showed that Hernandez, who played in the National Football League (NFL) for approximately three seasons, had advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), possibly more severe than researchers had seen before. Hernandez’s daughter has filed a lawsuit against the NFL and critics are asking if more should be done to protect players from traumatic brain injury and a risk of CTE.

Hernandez Committed Suicide After Facing Charges Related to Murder

One of the commonly cited side effects linked to CTE is a lack of impulse control, and that side effect could be demonstrated by Hernandez facing charges of murder related to three different deaths. He was acquitted of two murders linked to deaths at a night club but was about to go to prison for the murder of Odin Lloyd. When he left the NFL, he had played for approximately three seasons and had what many critics called an astounding rise and fast fall.

On April 19 Hernandez hanged himself. He was 27 years old.

Researchers Stunned by Severity of Aaron Hernandez’ CTE

After his death, Hernandez’s brain underwent a scan that showed he had advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy. His CTE was so severe, in fact, that researchers were reportedly stunned by it. A lawyer for the Hernandez family said researchers called his condition “the most severe case they had ever seen in someone of Aaron’s age.”

Aaron Hernandez’s CTE was severe enough that some critics have speculated he may have had the condition even while he was still playing football. Researchers said Hernandez’s level of CTE was similar to what they would typically see in a former player in his 60s.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Linked to Aggression, Dementia

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a serious degenerative condition that can only be diagnosed by a brain scan after the patient has died. It has been linked to repeated traumatic head injuries, including severe concussions. Patients who are later diagnosed with CTE often show signs of difficulty with aggression, lack of impulse control, dementia, and mood swings.

Players in contact sports—including football and hockey—are thought to have a much higher risk of developing CTE thanks to head injuries linked to the aggressive contact.

Research conducted at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center suggests that players who begin to tackle football before they turn 10 years old have a higher risk of behavioral and cognitive problems than those who start later.

This study adds to growing research suggesting that incurring repeated head impacts through tackle football before the age of 12 can lead to a greater risk for short- and long-term neurological consequences,” said Michael Alosco, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a post-doctoral fellow at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM).

Critics are also noting that the NFL has to take note of Hernandez’s condition, and the growing evidence that playing football is linked to severe brain damage.

“If nothing else, Hernandez’s Stage III CTE is another wakeup call on just how brutal the game of football can be, and how the worst of the damage inflicted every weekend isn’t in the knees, backs or shoulders of players, but in the human brain,” Sean Pendergast wrote for Houston Press. Later he wrote, “This is a dangerous game with big hits and permanent injuries, injuries for which new rules and new equipment can only do so much.”

Other Players Diagnosed with CTE Post-Mortem

Although he had the worst case of CTE researchers had seen, Hernandez certainly isn’t the first NFL player diagnosed with the condition. Among the approximately 100 other players to be diagnosed with CTE are Junior Seau—who committed suicide—Frank Gifford, and Ken Stabler. A 2015 study of deceased former NFL players found that 87 of 91 had chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Lawsuit Filed Against NFL, Patriots

A lawyer for Aaron’s daughter, Avielle, has filed a lawsuit on her behalf against the NFL and New England Patriots, alleging the organizations were responsible for her father’s death by concealing and misrepresenting the risk of repeated traumatic head injuries.

Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges the NFL and Patriots “needlessly delayed adoption of rules and league policies related to player health and safety with regard to concussions and subconcussive head trauma.”

Avielle’s lawsuit seeks $20 million for deprivation of her father’s love, affection, and companionship. The NFL has also recently settled lawsuits with former players who alleged they were not made aware of the risks of repeated head injuries.

Given the risk of severe brain damage and the possibility of CTE, one would hope that the NFL and other leagues that require players to undergo repetitive hits will take Aaron Hernandez’ CTE seriously and take further steps to prevent current and future players from a similar fate.

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