CTE has been at the forefront of conversations and research surrounding the NFL. A recent study published in The Journal of American Medical Association found that of the 111 brains of deceased NFL players examined, 110 of them were diagnosed with CTE.
Detroit Lions wide receiver Ryan Spadola has suffered three concussions during his playing career — one in high school, two in the NFL.
“I try not to think about it or read too much into those things while I’m playing right now,” Spadola said. “It’s definitely a scary thing to think about though when a study like that comes out.”
Even though he isn’t thinking about brain trauma when he’s going over the middle of the field to make a catch or laying out to make a diving reception, Spadola is well aware there’s more to life than football.
“You need your brain for life after football,” he said. “Football isn’t your whole life, it’s a small portion of it.”
According to the NFL Players’ Association, the average NFL playing career lasts 3.3 years.
Will Rackley, Spadola’s college teammate at Lehigh University, was forced to retire from the NFL after four seasons because he suffered three concussions in a nine-month span from 2013-14. The former offensive lineman with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens has been dealing with post-concussions symptoms since.
Unfortunately, for Rackley and the slew of other former (and current) players, there is no way to diagnose CTE while the person is still living. CTE can only be diagnosed during autopsy. It’s the side effects — headaches, nausea, dizziness, memory loss, dementia and depression — that may give some indication toward a possible diagnosis, but, at that point, it’s too little, too late.
The NFL and USA Football, the governing body for amateur football, have taken steps to try to combat the increasing cases of CTE. The NFL has limited contact during practice and has clamped down on hits to the head with more severe fines and penalties. At the youth level, USA Football has decreased the size of the playing field, eliminated punts and kickoffs and even reduced the number of players on the field.
“I think any action taken to address the situation in the sport is definitely a positive,” Spadola said. “A lot of money is going to the guys who suffered concussions and toward studies, but there isn’t anything that can prevent concussions. There are action steps being taken, but it’s still part of the game that a third party can’t have control over. You can’t make the game a non-contact sport; at some point in every play, the head is in jeopardy.”
Spadola also pointed out how social media has played a role in the sport’s safety (or lack thereof). He said players are more inclined to go for the bone-crunching, highlight-reel hit in order to go viral or draw more media attention rather than emphasizing proper technique and safety when making a tackle.
Like everything in life there can be negative consequences, Spadola said. There are endless amounts of car accidents, but people still drive to and from work putting their lives at risk for their profession. Yes, sitting in front of a computer is vastly different than throwing your body full speed at another one, but both situations present a varied level of uncertainty.
“I hope my brain stays healthy and I don’t experience any of these things these veterans are experiencing later in their lives,” Spadola said.