Football and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) have become nearly synonymous in recent years. Every few months, there is a new headline or study that concludes that a former player or players were found to have the degenerative neurological condition after their death. In the aftermath of those studies, youth football has seen a decline in participation rates, with concerns about concussions and head trauma being among the reasons cited for why kids no longer play.
Former ESPN NFL analyst Merril Hoge doesn’t like what he sees in that regard, and it’s why he began to look into the studies of CTE and how it is linked to football and other contact sports. Hoge put together his findings, along with his own analysis of them, in his book: Brainwashed: The Bad Science Behind CTE and the Plot to Destroy Football. Hoge’s NFL career ended in 1994 after he suffered multiple concussions in the span of a few weeks and was cleared to play when he shouldn’t have been. That, combined with the fact that his kids are involved in sports was the driving impetus for the book.
“I come from the views of a concerned parent. My kids play football and my kids are active in sports.” said Hoge when he stopped by the CBS Local studios on Friday. “And, of course, there is my history and what ended my career, which was improper care of head trauma which we have drastically changed since 1994. And what has happened is those things have gotten all blurred together, they don’t belong together. Protocols and treatments and treatments need to be over here, and this pattern, this thing we keep hearing about, CTE, should be over here. I was no different than anyone watching or listening to this, I saw all of the headlines. I wanted to know what it was. So, quite honestly, it sent me on a journey.”
That journey led him to Dr. Peter Cummings, a board-certified neuropathologist and assistant professor at Boston University who was thrust into the national conversation on these topics following an op-ed that he wrote for Yahoo! Sports last year titled “I’m a brain scientist and I let my son play football.” The pair talked to multiple other neurologists and neuropathologists about the current state of CTE research and whether or not the disease can be directly connected to football in a cause-and-effect relationship.
Those discussions and findings became the basis for the Brainwashed book, which Hoge says can be a great resource for parents who are concerned about letting their children play football.
“I have always thought, from a parent’s perspective, wouldn’t it be nice to know all of the facts if we’re going to make a decision for our family” said Hoge. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have all of the information for us to know and understand before we make a decision to let our kids play contact sports or not let them play?”
The book attempts to condense the research surrounding CTE into terms and language that is more accessible and easy to understand for parents in order to help them in making the decision of whether or not to allow their children to play football. In addition to the information aspect, the book does delve into the advocacy realm, as it champions the benefits of playing youth football while acknowledging that there is still work to be done in regards to making the game safer for kids as a whole.
One of the biggest problems that Hoge sees, having been a coach for his son’s teams and a member of USA Football’s board of directors, is that the sport is very fragmented at the youth levels with several national governing bodies in addition to local, independent leagues. To try to combat that problem, Hoge says that USA Football is working on an alliance for all of youth football to fall under. But, he stresses that more important than a centralized organization is the parents themselves. If the parents buy into having protocols in place for handling head injuries, then game can continue to improve its safety record.
“I’m not sitting here with a blind eye and the status quo saying we are perfect with youth football, absolutely not. We need to keep growing and evolving and making sure that we do have protocols in place,” said Hoge. “This is where parents are a huge asset because, who is going to make a difference in their youth programs? Parents, families, the community. So, you need to understand, we need to have protocols.”
Hoge lays out what some of the protocols are in the book as a resource for parents to use not only in an instance where their child suffers a head injury, but also as a guide for what to look for when picking a youth football league to sign up for. In his coaching days, he says that his team had just one, 15-minute, “live” practice every two weeks. He says that he understands there was always a “macho” element to the sport with regard to dealing with injuries, but that it is possible to instill that toughness while being smart about head trauma.
“We need to keep evolving. If you know programs that don’t have it (head trauma protocols), or if your program doesn’t have it, you need to implement it,” said Hoge. “There are tons of resources, go back to the book, in your youth programs. So, if you’re struggling with that, or you want it to be part of your program and it’s not. The Brainwashed book would be a good resource to help you with those resources and information.”
The book, Brainwashed: The Bad Science Behind CTE and the Plot to Destroy Football, is available online and in all booksellers now.