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We’re well into pro football preseason, and as we settle in to watch and cheer on our draft picks, it’s easy to feel like these players are larger-than-life figures. But after the 2013 season — when the NFL agreed to the largest settlement any pro sports league had ever awarded its players for long-term injuries — it’s also tough to forget about the health risks of playing football.

Before the NFL concussion litigation, not many people talked about (or even attempted to pronounce) chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in people with repetitive brain trauma. When lawsuits came pouring in against the NFL by players alleging they suffered neurological damage, the news began to form lists of the surprising number of deaths by former NFL players, such as:

  • Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Terry Long: committed suicide in 2005 at age 45
  • Former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters: committed suicide in 2006 at age 44
  • Former Houston Oilers linebacker John Grimsley: died of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2008 at age 45
  • Former Phoenix Cardinals safety Dave Duerson: committed suicide in 2011 at age 50
  • Former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Ralph Wenzel: died as the result of dementia-related complications in 2012 at age 69
  • Former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling: committed suicide in 2012 at age 62
  • Former New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau: committed suicide at age 43

Before his death, Ray Easterling was the first plaintiff to file a lawsuit against the NFL for injury-related neurological problems. One of his attorneys, Larry Coben of Anapol Weiss, told The Associated Press that, “The big issue, for us, is they were told for decades to lead with their heads.” That point was what fired the shot and led to the $765 million settlement agreement two years later.

Thanks to increased interest and funding from the NFL to learn more about degenerative neurological disorders caused by repeated head trauma, researchers are now trying to understand CTE better.

Recently, a University at Buffalo study suggested CTE is rarer than we think. The UB researchers examined 21 former Bills and Sabres (hockey) players and realized there’s a lot more that scientists don’t know about CTE than they do. Barry Willer, who co-led the research team for the study, said, “When we started this study we truly believed we would see much higher rates of cognitive decline and dementia, and we simply didn’t find it.”

The UB research team believes there could be a genetic trigger that makes some people more prone to CTE. Eventually, doctors will be able to find the indicator while the player is still alive (there is currently no concrete way to identify CTE in a living person) and then make the decision whether or not to stop playing the contact sport.

Until then, says Dr. John Leddy, who also co-led the study, there’s no evidence that putting kids in youth football programs will definitely  lead to brain damage.

What does this information tell us? That there’s still a lot to know about the long-term effects of brain trauma. As parents with young athletes in the house, it’s up to us to protect our children and make the most informed decisions for them. That means taking the available information about football injuries and finding ways to prevent them as best we can.

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