Landmark Ruling: Contact Sports Cause CTE and Brain Damage

brain injuries shown on a CT scan

In an unprecedented move that will have ramifications for contact sports at all levels, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has formally acknowledged that there is a causal link between repeated blows to the head and the neurodegenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of brain damage.

The Guardian reports that the NIH is the largest biomedical research agency in the world. The decision to rewrite its official guidance on CTE has been described by safety advocates as a crucial tipping point in the ongoing debate about the risks of playing contact sports such as football and hockey. In the NIH’s view, research to date suggests a clear and unequivocal causal link between repeated traumatic brain injury (concussions) and CTE.

Why This Finding is Important

This is a stunning admission that could alter the future of major sports. However, not all organizations agree with that finding. For example, it is not supported by the Concussion in Sport Group, which is supported by FIFA, World Rugby, and the International Olympic Committee, among others. The concussion consensus documents published by the United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (CISG) have consistently played down the link between CTE and concussions sustained during contact sports. This is a position many sports leagues and federations have used to defend themselves against lawsuits and calls for reform.

The NIH’s change in guidance came after a group of 41 leading scientists, doctors and epidemiologists co-signed a letter to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). The letter cited a recent review of the research into CTE published in July in the Frontiers in Neurology journal, which established a clear link to concussions suffered by abuse victims, soldiers, and sportspersons.

This recent change brings NIH closer to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advised in 2019 that most research suggests CTE is caused in part by repeated traumatic brain injuries. This essentially means that two of the leading independent medical research bodies in the world agree on the link between concussions and CTE.

Understanding CTE

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE is a progressive brain condition that is linked to the person suffering repeated blows to the head and repeated episodes of concussion. It is particularly associated with contact sports such as football, hockey, and boxing. Most of the available studies are based on former athletes. CTE was previously known as “punch drunk syndrome,” but that term is no longer used because we now know that the condition is not just limited to former boxers.

A number of studies have indisputably shown that repeated blows to the head and repeated concussions, which many professional football players suffer, lead to a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Potential signs of CTE include problems with thinking and memory, personality changes, and behavioral changes including aggression and depression.

A concussion is a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that occurs when the brain impacts the interior of the skull due to violent head movement or a blow to the head. The impact leads to a series of microscopic changes in the brain causing a variety of symptoms. Concussions could occur in a variety of sports other than football, hockey, and boxing, including soccer, lacrosse, wrestling, basketball, cheerleading, volleyball, baseball, rugby, and gymnastics.

A concussion does not always result in a loss of consciousness, but a victim may have a brief blackout or pass out for up to half an hour. People may not experience potential signs of CTE until years or decades after brain injuries occur. A definitive diagnosis of CTE can only be made after death. Several high-profile former football players such as Junior Seau or Aaron Hernandez, who behaved erratically in the latter part of their lives or died tragically by suicide, have been diagnosed with severe cases of CTE after their death.

Recent studies have also shown evidence of brain injuries in football players at a surprisingly young age. For example, a study by Orlando Health in collaboration with the Concussion Neuroimaging Consortium found evidence of lasting effects from head injuries at a much younger age than expected. The study’s authors said they were shocked to see biomarkers in the blood that indicated they had already suffered concussions even before official football season had begun. This suggested that the effects of past head injuries continue to persist over time.

How Negligence Can Cause a Concussion

There are a number of situations where negligence on someone else’s part can result in a concussion or in a situation where concussions are not promptly treated. For example, when a high school football coach fails to pull an injured player off the field or call for medical attention, that amounts to negligence.

When a youth soccer coach encourages excessive force during games or even practices, that is negligence. Above all, when you have organizations such as the NFL, NBA, NCAA, or Pop Warner that know the risks and dangers of sports-related head injuries, but fail to protect players through adequate warnings or fail to properly manage head injuries, that amounts to negligence as well.

Filing a Brain Injury Lawsuit

When concussions are caused by someone else’s negligence (carelessness), wrongful action, or lack of action, the victim may have the right to file a lawsuit seeking compensation for their losses and damages including medical bills, cost of rehabilitation, therapy, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

There are a number of entities that could be held potentially liable including:

  • A coach or other officials leading the team.
  • Sports leagues or organizations.
  • Schools, colleges, or universities.
  • Another third party.

Concussion lawsuits can be extremely complicated. In order to prove injuries and losses, plaintiffs must show proof that the responsible parties were negligent and that such negligence directly caused their injuries and damages. Plaintiffs may also be looking at going against large corporations or entities such as the NFL, NBA, or universities/institutions that have significant resources. This is why you need an experienced brain injury lawyer on your side who has successfully handled similar cases.

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