Cullen Finnerty was a golden boy of the gridiron, quarterbacking Grand Valley State University in Michigan to three NCAA Division 2 championships between 2003 and 2006. But Finnerty, 30, met a shocking end: He died slowly of pneumonia caused by choking on his own vomit, after he became disoriented while on a fishing trip in the Michigan woods in May. He was taking the prescription painkiller oxycodone, which can cause disorientation, but an autopsy also showed the degenerative disease found in the brains of many former football players: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Boston University researchers who examined Finnerty’s brain said there is no way to know what role the disease played in his death. But Finnerty, who left behind a wife and two young children, is one of the younger players to be diagnosed with CTE, which can cause depression and dementia.
Now, as hundreds of thousands of kids suit up for a new football season, it’s important that they, their parents, and their coaches keep CTE in mind. The precise dangers of the disease, and the exact types of hits that are likeliest to cause it, are unknown, which makes the possibilities all the more threatening. But the sheer number of players and former players who have succumbed to it — from former Patriots star Junior Seau, who killed himself at 43, to University of Pennsylvania cocaptain Owen Thomas, who killed himself at 21 — is truly alarming.
CTE can only be diagnosed after death, so it’s impossible to know how many former players are walking around with it. In a study published last winter, BU researchers found CTE in the brains of 50 deceased football players. Much of the attention went to the 33 former National Football League players with the disease, such as Hall of Famers John Mackey and Ollie Matson. Indeed, after 4,500 retired players sued the NFL for allegedly placing them in danger of CTE, the league announced last week that it was settling the case for $765 million.
But the disease has struck many others who didn’t even make the NFL. Former Boston College linebacker Ron Perryman, who died at 42 from Lou Gehrig’s disease, had CTE. So did six former high school players. The link between football and CTE is about as clear as that of smoking and lung cancer in the ’60s. Back then, researchers knew that disproportionate numbers of smokers were being diagnosed with lung cancer, but they didn’t know whether changes to cigarettes might prevent the damage.
Now, football organizations, from the NFL on down, are considering rule changes that might mitigate hits to the head, in the same way that tobacco companies peddled low-tar cigarettes as a possible antidote to the dangers of smoking. Teams are quicker to diagnose concussions and to keep concussed players out of action for longer periods. But concussions aren’t the only cause of CTE: BU researchers believe that repeated blows to the head of sub-concussive impact can cause damage as well.
In the meantime, players and their parents should consider the risks before committing to any program. Football is a great sport, and a vehicle for learning about character and competition. But no one can know the full dangers of head injuries, and so families should approach the game with all due caution.