Tue Jul 26 02:37pm EDT
Much of the talk around the long-term impacts of concussions thus far has been based on U.S. research and autopsies of NFL players, but that changed Tuesday with the news that autopsies conducted by the Canadian Sports Concussion Project at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre in Toronto found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of former CFL players Jay Roberts and Bobby Kuntz (seen at right). CTE is a horrifying degenerative neurological disease that's been found both in players whose careers ended long ago, like Mike Webster and Dave Duerson, and in plenty of younger players without recorded concussion histories (such as Chris Henry and Owen Thomas). Its confirmed presence in the brains of Roberts and Kuntz provides extra impetus for Canadian football to move forward on addressing concussions.
Some will try to write these findings off, arguing that Kuntz and Roberts played in a different era and that findings about their brains don't necessarily tell us much about the current state of the game. That's true to a certain extent, but it's worth noting that they're far from the last players to run into significant concussion issues long after their career ended. Former quarterback and current TSN analyst Matt Dunigan spoke earlier this month about his struggles with concussions and how he's still feeling their effects, and there are plenty of other stories like his. Former star CFL linebacker Jerry Campbell, who has Alzheimer's disease, spoke out in 2009 about his health struggles and how he attributes many of those to football. Former quarterback and current Calgary offensive coordinator Dave Dickenson suffered plenty of concussions as a player, and has discussed the impacts those have had on him in the past. Concussions clearly didn't stop after the Duerson and Kuntz era, and it's quite possible that more and more players with CTE will be found as time goes on. There is a time lag involved, though: progress is being made on ways to identify CTE in the living, but that's still a ways off. For now, it can only be found via autopsy.
Concussions are still a current problem in the CFL, and they're one the league is going to have to face. It's very possible it was a concussion that knocked star Montreal quarterback Anthony Calvillo out of the Alouettes' 27-24 loss to Saskatchewan Sunday, as he left the game with what was later described as "blurry vision". According to the concussion poster found in every CFL dressing room, "fuzzy or double vision" can be a symptom of concussions. Moreover, given the current issues with tackling, headhunting and lost helmets, it seems quite likely we're going to see more prominent concussions as the year goes on.
While this research also revealed that concussions don't necessarily lead to CTE (no CTE was found in the brains of former CFL players Tony Proudfoot and Peter Ribbins), that doesn't mean that football's suddenly safe or that concussions don't cause long-term problems. Both Proudfoot (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease) and Ribbins (Parkinson's) died of neurological diseases, and there's been quite a variety of evidence suggesting that athletic head injuries may be related to those specific diseases. Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali has been diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome, and at least seven or eight former CFL players have been affected by ALS, roughly 160 times greater than the rate at which it's been found in the general population.
Moreover, there's a growing body of evidence that ALS (or different degenerative diseases that appear to be ALS) can be linked to repeated concussive trauma and football. The CTE found in the brains of Roberts and Kuntz is further proof of some of the impacts of concussions we already know, and demonstrates that their effects can perhaps be just as damaging in the CFL as they are in other leagues (although the relationship between concussions and CTE still isn't clear). The information about Proudfoot and Ribbins being CTE-free doesn't mean football wasn't involved in their deaths, though, especially considering that both died from neurological diseases that have been heavily linked to athletic brain injuries. If anything, it suggests we still have much more to learn about concussions and how they affect the brain.