Bioethics Blogs

Is football safe for brains?

by Dr. L. Syd M Johnson

Dr. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Bioethics in the Department of Humanities at Michigan Technological University. Her work in neuroethics focuses on disorders of consciousness and sport-related neurotrauma. She has published several articles on concussions in youth football and hockey, as well as on the ethics of return-to-play protocols in youth and professional football.

This post is the first of several that will recap and offer perspectives on the conversations and debates that took place at the recent 2015 International Neuroethics Society meeting.

At the International Neuroethics Society annual meeting in Chicago this month, Nita Farahany and a panel from the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University (FHPS) headlined the public talk “Is professional football safe? Can it be made safer?” The panel declined to provide direct answers to these important questions, but the short answers are “No,” and “Not by much,” respectively.

In recent years, there has been much public concern about the impact of football and other neurotraumatic sports on the brains of athletes. The neuroethics community has been somewhat slow in picking up sport-related concussion and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) as topics of neuroethical concern. Public and media concern have been fueled by reports stating that the brains of deceased athletes show evidence of the distinctive tauopathy of CTE, attributed by researchers like Bennet Omalu (who described the first case in a retired football player in 2005) and Ann C. McKee (Boston University) to brain trauma sustained while playing sports. To date, there have been approximately 150 documented cases of CTE, and an exceptionally high number of the brains examined by Omalu, McKee, and colleagues have been positive for the characteristic tau depositions.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.