Banging Heads Together 2: CTE, the hidden killer

In our previous blog “Banging Heads Together” we discussed the discovery of the brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in a former rugby union player with a further 10 potential cases coming to light.


CTE is a degenerative and incurable disease that compromises neural activity and is linked to memory loss, depression and dementia. The presence of CTE in America Footballers was brought into the headlines following the suicides of at least six NFL players since 2011.

The stark reality potentially linking CTE with the suicides of these athletes can be seen in the actual suicide of former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson. The double Super Bowl winner retired from the league in 1993, refreshed his economics degree with a business course at Harvard and entered the food business, purchasing three McDonald’s franchises in Louisville, Kentucky, before setting up his own business, Duerson Foods, supplying sausages to chains.

But from around 2005 (over 10 years after retirement from the NFL) Duerson’s life began to change. His severe headaches increased in frequency whilst the profitability of his business was on the slide. His marriage broke down and his debts piled up. On 17 February 2011, Duerson took his own life. He had placed his NFL Man of the Year trophy, awarded in 1987, on a table beside the spot at which he fell, along with a note that read; “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank”. The request might have been deemed an anomaly had it not married up with the unusual method of Duerson’s suicide. He shot himself in the heart.

Dr Robert Stern, a co-director of the Boston University research group (home of the NFL ‘brain bank’) cautioned that CTE cannot explain every action a sufferer will take; “When it comes to suicide and CTE it is possible that in some individuals the combination of CTE-related symptoms of poor impulse control, depression and cognitive impairment may indeed lead to suicide…however we can never clearly point to any cause-and-effect relationship in any one case.”

The scariest part of CTE is that the mild and moderate cases do not show up on CT scans or other imaging. The condition in such cases can only be definitively diagnosed by an autopsy.

So where does that leave us with cases of liability? The NFL has settled out of court following mediation with over 4,500 former players. Clubs will be vicariously liable for their players unless they can prove the player was carrying out a personal vendetta unconnected to the employment relationship. The ‘Bountygate’ scandal was quite the opposite. A programme run by former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, in which defenders paid into a kitty and received cash rewards for injuring opposing players: $1,000 if an opponent was carted off the field; $1,500 if he was knocked out of the game altogether; amounts doubling and tripling in the playoffs. With such obvious individual intent (albeit actively encouraged by the club’s staff) will we seen player v player lawsuits?

September this year saw Gareth Dyas and Steven Lawrie plead guilty to assault occasioning bodily harm in a game between Kippax Knights and Nevison Leap. Former Wakefield Wildcats and Castleford Tigers player Christopher Hall sustained life-changing injuries including a blood clot on the brain. Dyas and Lawrie have paid £500 and £2,000 in compensation respectively but will they be liable for further costs if Hall goes on to suffer at the hands of CTE or other related brain injuries?

Andy Boyde – Sports Consultant