Less than a year after finding signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in five living former football players, researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles have found signs of the disease in at least three other living former players, including Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett.
Another Hall of Famer, Joe DeLamielleure, and former NFL standout Leonard Marshall also exhibited signs of CTE, doctors told ESPN’s Outside The Lines. UCLA researchers tested a fourth player but have not finalized his results yet. Dorsett and DeLamielleure both told ESPN that they have struggled with memory loss and depression, effects thought to be common results of CTE.
CTE is the degenerative brain disease linked to concussions and repetitive brain trauma and thought to be incredibly common among former football players. Currently, it can only be fully diagnosed postmortem, but it has been found in more than 50 deceased professional football players. As the PBS Frontline documentary League of Denial chronicled, CTE was at the center of the National Football League’s denial of the dangers of concussions, as the league tried to cover up the links between brain trauma suffered on the football field and problems, including dementia, memory loss, depression, and suicidal thoughts, that CTE can cause. Dr. Bennet Omalu, one of the researchers who first identified CTE and was subsequently silenced by the NFL, is among the doctors involved in UCLA’s testing.
It still isn’t possible to diagnose CTE in living players, but researchers involved in the project told ESPN that identifying signs could help both in developing a live diagnosis and in figuring out how to treat, manage, and possibly cure the disease. It could also help answer one of the key questions about CTE and football: exactly how prevalent is the disease in former players?
Dr. Ann McKee, a leading researcher also working to develop a diagnosis for the living, has studied the brains of more than 40 dead former football players. All but one had CTE. In League of Denial, McKee stated that she “really wonder[ed] whether all football players don’t have this.” The ability to diagnose it in living players, obviously, would help answer that question.
Once that question is answered, it could make it clear just how dangerous football really is, not just at the professional level but in lower levels too, and answer whether the problem is concussions or, as research as suggested, the repetitive non-concussive blows that are routine to the game. And if doctors have a diagnosis that can let them diagnose this not just in iconic veterans like Dorsett and DeLamielleure but in a current player too, that’s the type of development that could lead to broad awareness of this disease among fans in a way that League of Denial and other reports simply cannot. In short, the possibilities an actual CTE diagnosis in a living player would raise are limitless, and while researchers may not be quite there yet, they’re clearly moving closer with every bit of testing and research that is done.