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Americans growing concerned over football head injuries, survey says

According to recent survey data collected by The Harris Poll, most Americans are concerned about head injuries in football. Almost 90 percent of fans believe teams should administer a standardized concussion test to all players who suffer on-field head injuries. Approximately 88 percent also support longer recovery periods for concussed players. And, most notably, three out of five Americans believe aggressive tackling should be penalized in professional football.

CTE raises awareness
In 2002, forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered a neurodegenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Omalu unearthed the condition while examining the brain of deceased football player Mike Webster. After retiring from the NFL in 1990, Webster suffered from mood swings, dementia and depression, and eventually passed away at age 50, penniless and alone. Omalu attributed Webster's psychological deterioration to football. Soon, other former players came forward with similar symptoms, and, more died from the disease.

In 2011, retired NFL player Dave Duerson died by suicide, reported The New York Times. In the note he left behind, Duerson listed his reasons for ending his life - memory loss and splitting headaches were among them - and specifically asked his family to test his brain for signs of CTE. A year later, beloved former linebacker Junior Seau took his own life, as well. Seau's family donated his brain to the National Institutes of Health, which had by then begun its own investigation into CTE. Both players were ultimately diagnosed with the condition.

In 2014, 5000 players sued the NFL over its negligence, reported CNN. In April the plaintiffs settled with the league for $1 billion.   

In September, researchers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University evaluated the brains of 91 deceased professional football players, reported Frontline. Approximately 87 of them showed signs of CTE.

Omalu estimates that 90 percent of current NFL players have the disease, reported Sports Illustrated. 

The rise of CTE has transformed how people think about football. Fewer parents are letting their kids suit up for Pop Warner and high school football squads. According to a Bloomberg survey, 50 percent of Americans would now bar their sons from playing organized football. Additionally, only 17 percent said the NFL would grow in popularity over the next 20 years.

Football reacts
In response to the discovery of CTE, the NFL and the NCAA tightened their restrictions on helmet-to-helmet hits, instituted strict concussion protocols and expanded sideline medical teams. The NFL made approximately 40 rule changes to address safety concerns and, according to the league's internal health and safety team, the sport has become markedly safer. The number of in-game concussions has dropped by 35 percent since 2012, reported The Atlantic.

However, fans don't think these rule changes are enough. According to The Harris Poll, only 44 percent of Americans believe the new regulations have made the game safer. Most believe better equipment is the key. Approximately 86 percent of respondents said improved helmets would best protect players from concussions. Omalu disagrees with this assessment, reported CBS News.

"There is no helmet today, as I'm speaking to you, that will stop your brain from bouncing around in your skull," the physician said during a Jan. 12 government briefing on CTE.   

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