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Media Sensationalism Driving Anxiety, Web Hits With Regards To CTE, Brain Studies And Football

A new brain study was released this week that showed football players who started before age 12 had increased chances of cognitive issues. Does the media report on this fairly? Or is it sensationalized to drive web hits?

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Florida State V Nebraska
I couldn’t find a photo that fit, so I went with this one.

There was a study released this week that purported to show that those who play football before the age of 12 showed “increased odds for clinically meaningful impairments in reported behavioral regulation, apathy and executive function, and … increased odds for clinically elevated depression scores, compared with those who began playing at 12 or older”. In other words, those who started before the age of 12 would show more emotional swings, apathy, have a higher chance of depression and have difficulty with memory, multitasking, planning, and attention. The study, entitled “Age of first exposure to American football and long-term neuropsychiatric and cognitive outcomes”, was published in "Translational Psychiatry” on September 19.

Brain studies are interesting to me not only because of the overall interest in CTE as it relates to football, but because it's now been over two years since the event that caused my own brain injury and I am slowly coming to the realization that I will suffer these effects the from that injury for rest of my life. I am interested in following research not only in CTE, but in other neurodegenerative diseases and brain health overall. I am certainly not trying to tout myself as a brain expert but I do have some first-hand knowledge about dealing with brain injuries.

What I found interesting about this study was not necessarily the study itself but in how it was reported. Let's take a look at some headlines from news outlets that they handled this news:

The Study

Translational Psychiatry - Age of first exposure to American football and long-term neuropsychiatric and cognitive outcomes

The present sample included only male former American football players who played high school, college or professional football, and did not participate in any other organized contact sports.

This is the study itself.

NY Times Article:

Playing Tackle Football Before 12 Is Tied to Brain Problems Later - The New York Times

There was no examination of physical changes in the brain. (A separate study published by researchers at Boston University in July found that 110 out of 111 brains of deceased former N.F.L. players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease.)

The New York Times spends more time in their article talking about other brain studies and problems with football than they do actually talking about the study. The inference is clear – this is one more example of (circumstantial) evidence that football is very bad.

Neuroscience News

Youth Football Linked to Emotional and Behavioral Impairments Later in Life - Neuroscience News

A new study from researchers at Boston University reports an increase in later life emotional and behavioral problems in people who played youth tackle football before the age of 12.

Above is the photo included with this article... really?

USA Today

Study: Tackle football before age 12 leads to brain issues

The average age of participants at the time the survey was conducted was 51, and included 43 who only played through high school and 103 who only played through college. Sixty-eight professionals made up the rest of the participants.

One of the few stories that mention the current age of the players interviewed.


In wake of new research, brain expert says he doesn't think children should play tackle football

Stern acknowledged that the research released Tuesday has limitations and that the science has "a long way to go." He noted that the subjects in the study were not random but instead had volunteered to participate. As well, the research was conducted through phone and online surveys, making it less robust than had the examinations been performed in person.

This is the only story I found that mentions that the study participants were not random but volunteers. Honestly, it’s the best story I found that lays out the entire foundation around the study and gives an honest and objective viewpoint.

Study: Football before age 12 ups risk of mood, behavior problems |

A new study released Tuesday found that people who played football before age 12 were more likely to to have impaired mood and behavior than people who began playing at an older age.

Nearly worthless story which actually includes very little information about the study itself and references the "110 out of 111" study.

Boston Globe

Study links youth football to greater risk of later health problems - The Boston Globe

Playing tackle football under the age of 12 exposes children to repetitive head impacts that may double their risk of developing behavioral problems and triple their chances of suffering depression later in life, according to a study published Tuesday in Nature magazine’s journal, Translational Psychiatry.

This story includes opposing viewpoints, although it does not point any potential flaws in the study.

Earlier this year a study was released that showed that the 110 out of 111 former NFL players had CTE (linked is the NY Times big layout about the study) when their brains were examined posthumously. It has been cited repeatedly, but what is not been cited is the high selection bias problem associated with the study. Even those that perform the study noted its high selection bias, but the media does not.

What is the high selection bias? Former players donated their brains posthumously after those players had exhibited signs of CTE during their lives. This is the equivalent of studying someone who showed symptoms of tuberculosis only to find that they do, in fact, have tuberculosis.

I’ll let you look at the stories above and the headlines and determine for yourself whether these are examples of good journalism or media sensationalism. You can guess my opinion.

What should bother you is that this is how health news is handled in general, not just when it comes to brain studies, CTE, and football. Health news overall tends to be driven by personal interest stories instead of focusing on medical issues. (Consider stories about vaccines, for example.) There is an abundance of stories presented as “news” that are really nothing more than rewritten press releases from pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, insurance companies, or even the government. It is very difficult as a “lay” person to determine what is going on out there when it comes to our health.

Below I have linked an article from a website I have found – Health News Review – that examines healthcare articles much in the same way I have looked at how the media has handled this new brain study. I have found the website to be very enlightening. If you are interested in how the media reports on health you might find it interesting as well.

Headlines claim light drinking during pregnancy is “okay” -- researchers say that’s not okay -
In the grossly misleading category is the Times, along with Refinery29 (Headline: “Reminder: It’s okay to drink (a little) during pregnancy”), the New York Post (“Light drinking during pregnancy does not harm babies: study”), and Business Insider (“Pregnant mothers can drink 4 units of alcohol a week without putting their unborn baby at considerable risk, according to a new study”).

Yahoo Sports - I'm a brain scientist and I let my son play football

Replication and independent verification are two crucial steps in the scientific process. Yet many findings associated with CTE haven’t passed these tests. Contrary to what appears in the headlines, multiple researchers have found no significant relationship between playing football and increased risk of violence, suicide and dementia in the general football playing population. In fact, studies have shown a lower rate of death due to violence and suicide in NFL players as compared to the general population.

In fact, it’s not entirely clear if CTE is unique to traumatic brain injury. CTE-like pathology has also been seen in the brains of people who’ve died of epilepsy, without any history of head trauma. There are also cases of opioid overdose deaths where the brains show signs of early aging, including tau accumulation. This might suggest other mitigating factors make some people more prone to developing CTE than others.

I clipped the article above because I think it provides an interesting counterpoint to the hysteria surrounding CTE and football. Is “hysteria” a strong word? Perhaps, but it has been used in reference to the subject, especially if you read some of the articles.

I will note that in reading quite a bit about the subject, again, not just in regards to CTE but in regards to other neurodegenerative diseases, that this is a very contentious space with regards to the medical profession. What we really know about the brain is in its infancy, yet the people who are in this field, not just in research, but are practicing neuropsychologists, neurologists, and neurosurgeons, are amongst the smartest humans on this planet. It is no shock that they would be arrogant, perhaps even bullheaded, about their positions, despite that in 100 years they will no doubt be determined to be mostly morons.

There is so much we don’t know. To assume that CTE and its problems with regard to football or an established fact is to assume too much.


Pressure Up Front Comes From Confidence in the Back for Nebraska | Hail Varsity
Nebraska played in the opponent's backfield against NIU more than it had at any other point this season. Thank the secondary for that.

Rutgers Has Nothing To Lose Against Nebraska - On the Banks
On offense, expect Jerry Kill to run early and often on the road to establish the ground game and work to dominate time of possession.

Lee says staying confident key; appreciates teammates' support
"We want to get better and that's what we're going to do."

Rutgers Fan Coming to Lincoln - Corn Nation

Hey all! I'm a Rutgers fan that will be coming out to Lincoln on Friday to spend the weekend in your fair city to watch some great football and get to know your city a bit.

Please help this guy who posted right here on CN asking for help!

Why would UCF coach Scott Frost want the Nebraska coaching job? - Orlando Sentinel
Said Peter: “Scott would be the first [head coach hired] in the last 15 years that has been part of a championship team at Nebraska; who knows something about the mentality and the work ethic you have to have at Nebraska; what is acceptable and what's not acceptable. It's part of the culture thing. Who else knows about the championship culture?”

Big Ten football, The B1G Roast: Fire Nebraska into the Sun - Bucky's 5th Quarter
We should ship Nebraska to the SEC because that’s how terrible they are.

Maryland football vs. UCF preview Q&A with Underdog Dynasty - Testudo Times
A conversation with our SB Nation friends about Maryland’s next oppponent.

Know Your Foe, Week 4: Iowa Hawkeyes - Black Shoe Diaries
Penn State meets Iowa for the 26th time since 1930

Get to know Michigan’s opponent: Purdue offense is dangerous - Maize n Brew
A Boilermaker team to take seriously

No. 8 Michigan (3-0) at Purdue (2-1) Preview - Hammer and Rails
Is that excitement we feel for a home game

Pooping jogger target of Colorado springs manhunt -
Well ... crap.

5 Wheaton College football players face felony charges in hazing incident

At one point, the players suggested to the freshman that he had been kidnapped by Muslims who wanted to fornicate with goats, the teen told investigators. They patted his foot and suggested he would be their "goat" for the evening, the records said.

I kinda get it. You’re young, and stupid, and caught up in a wave of utter stupidity that includes a desire to be physically cruel and condescending to another human being because you think you can. All it would have taken was for someone, anyone to stop for a moment and think about how wrong this is, and that this didn’t occur to anyone is... pathetic.

This is horrifying treatment of a fellow human being. They deserve to be punished to the full extent of the law.

Saturday was one of the deadliest for college football in decades -
The last time two college players died in the same year playing the game was 2011, according to the NCCSIR. When medical examinations are finalized, two may have died on the same day Saturday.

Then There’s This

Christian Numerologist Says World Will End On Sept. 23 « CBS Philly

If you had plans for the weekend, a Christian numerologist says you won't get to them.

One has to wonder if this will happen before, during, or after the Nebraska versus Rutgers game.

A Third of Vegetarians Eat Meat When They’re Drunk - MUNCHIES
A new survey of British vegetarians has found that one in three veggies eat meat every time they’re drunk on a night out, with kebabs coming out as the favoured illicit meat snack. | Florida woman makes sexy plea for power
She decided to increase her odds of getting her power back on by putting up this sign.