Guest Opinions

Don’t be brainwashed by new book that rejects sound football-CTE research

I cannot even begin to say how disappointed I was when I saw ex-NFL player and football analyst Merril Hoge’s name as the primary author of a book called “Brainwashed.” I have always been a big fan of Merril’s work. But not this time.

“Brainwashed” alleges that the studies linking football concussions to neurodegenerative diseases like CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, are flawed. Marketing materials promoting the book say the research is “a hysteria machine fueled by hidden agendas and misinformation.” Those same materials – which are widely circulating on social media - urge “anyone who cares about the future of youth sports and the survival of our nation’s most beloved game” to buy the book.

Hoge is one of the pioneers who first claimed the NFL was ignoring their obligation to ensure player safety. I guess you could say he pried open Pandora’s box. In 1996, Hoge sued the NFL and its Chicago Bears, claiming he was not properly warned about the severity of his concussion history. He alleged, too, that it was his team physician’s negligence that led to the premature end of his playing career. Hoge won the suit and was awarded $1.55 million. Now he seems to be doing a 180.

Hoge has partnered up with an outspoken critic of the CTE research that Dr. Ann McKee and colleagues are conducting at Boston University. If a person were just to read the marketing materials that are intended to sell “Brainwashed,” they would probably rush to judgment that CTE cannot develop from head trauma experienced while playing football.

It can. In fact, that link is very real, and it is very scary.

I’m willing to concede (as the CTE research teams also do) that the sampling for the BU studies is biased. There have been no control groups, meaning brains from those who did not engage in contact sport during their lifetime were not solicited. There is also the argument that the only brains that are studied by the group were posthumously donated by family members who had reason to be concerned.

But despite these criticisms about the CTE research, there is still strong evidence documenting the problem. So far, 110 out of 111 brains of former professional football players studied showed signs of CTE. Add to that the tragic endings of high-profile players such as Mike Webster and Junior Seau – both were posthumously diagnosed as having lived with advanced CTE. Despite the limited research methodology, there are more than enough reasons to be concerned.

Hoge previously acknowledged sustaining at least 19 football-related concussions. On one of those occasions, his heart stopped, he needed to be resuscitated, and he remained in ICU for nearly a week. His chilling descriptions of the cumulative effects of his head injuries is what compelled me to found the Center for Sports Concussion at Idaho State University. We have worked tirelessly to increase concussion education efforts statewide. We helped to get legislation passed to protect kids, and we continue to try to instill in our school and sports leaders — and in athletes and their parents — the need for better concussion management processes. Now, the marketing of his book has the potential to hinder that work and the importance of our message.

I get it. Merril Hoge wants to save the game of football. So do I. But misleading the public by writing and marketing a book suggesting that the research and subsequent publicity surrounding the long-term risks associated with the game should be taken lightly is nothing short of irresponsible.

Dr. Caroline Faure is a professor of sport science and the director of the Center for Sports Concussion at Idaho State University. She has authored numerous studies related to concussion, most recently two investigations that examined the impact of concussion history and posthumous CTE diagnosis on loved ones of professional football players.
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