NFL Study Links Concussions to Depression

On May 31, 2007, The National Football League released the results of a study which linked concussions to depression.

3,683 surveys were sent to retired players and 69% (2,552) were returned. The New York Times, in Concussions Tied to Depression in Ex-N.F.L. Players by Alan Schwarz, described the study as “the most comprehensive study of football players to date.“

Whom Can You Trust?

The NFL has billions of reasons to discount the results of this study, even though it was conducted by The Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, at The University of North Carolina, which is partly funded by the league.

The NFL’s Opinions

The NFL version of the study, quoted Dr. Kevin M. Guskiewicz, the lead author of the study. The study was published by The American College of Sports Medicine in Medicine and Science in Sports and Excercise, who said:

“The findings of this study are not simply relevant to 50-, 55-year-old, 60-year-old retired athletes” [but to those currently playing].

Other NFL “experts” also discounted the results:

Dr. Amparo Guiterrez, professor of clinical neurology at LSU did not say when the survey was done (the CSRA said 2001), but according to the league’s version, “Gutierrez said he has been collecting data since about 2001.” Dr. Gutierrez said:

“the study’s biggest problem is that it relies on athletes’ memory, unverified by doctors’ records.”

If that is true, then why has he been working on this since 2001?

Two members of the NFL’s mild traumatic brain injury committee also downplayed the results.

Dr. Henry Feuer, a neurological consultant for the Indianapolis Colts, said the findings were “virtually worthless.”

Dr. Ira Casson, co-chairman of the MTBI committee, said:

“They had no objective evaluations to determine whether or not what the people told them in the surveys was correct or not. They didn’t have information from doctors confirming it, they didn’t have tests, they didn’t have examinations. They didn’t have anything. They just kind of took people’s words for it.”

The CSRA reported it differently than The National Football League, and The New York Times, saying:

“Retired NFL players who sustained three or more concussions during their professional playing years had a nearly three-fold risk of being diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (one precursor to Alzheimer’s disease).”

They didn’t even mention depression! And the NFL never said anything about “impairment” or “Alzheimer’s!”

Another View

The Times article gave a more balanced perspective, quoting Dr. John Whyte, director of the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute, who has no ties to the National Football League, or the CSRA:

“To the person who says this is worthless, let’s just discard a third of the medical literature that we trust and go by today.”

“Here, the response rate was good and not a relevant issue to the findings. We have some pretty solid data that multiple concussions caused cumulative brain damage and increased risk of depression, and that is not in conflict with the growing literature.”

“Do I think this one study proves the point beyond doubt? No. Does it contribute in a meaningful way? You bet.”

My Opinion

  • The results would have been higher if more than 69% of the retired players responded.
  • The NFL needs to quit pretending that, when two 300 pound football players, running at full speed, collide, the worst that can happen, is a mild traumatic brain injury. This MTBI committee is a joke. Football is a rough game, and it should be rough, but it is time that the league came up with some guidelines to at least place players with concussions, or MTBI, on an injured reserved list as soon as they are taken out of a game.