Battered Brains Raise New Questions for Football Safety Advocates

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Ken "The Snake" Stabler died in July at the age of 69 after a battle with colon cancer. A football legend, the former Oakland Raiders quarterback had requested that his brain be studied after his death—a decision he made after learning that Junior Seau, a former NFL linebacker who committed suicide in 2012, had been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain disease that's been linked to repeated head injuries.

This week, Stabler's family announced the results of his autopsy, which showed that he did indeed have CTE.

The news, which comes just days before the Hall of Fame Selection Committee meets and Super Bowl 50, is raising questions about the NFL's handling of concussions and the safety measures in place to protect players.

But brain injuries are not just a NFL problem. Participation in the game, which can start as young as elementary school, can inflict blows to developing brains.  By the time a player makes it to the NFL, chances are he has received hundreds of hits, and while few of them may lead to an actual concussion, repeated contact over the years can take its toll.  

The NFL announced a multi-million dollar settlement to assist former players with concussion problems. They also teamed up with corporate partners to launch the Head Health Initiative, a campaign designed to get scientists, experts, and entrepreneurs to find innovative solutions to detect, protect ,and prevent mild traumatic brain injury.   

Public awareness about CTE comes too late for Tom McHale, a lineman for the Tampa Bay Buckaneers who passed away in 2008. He was the second NFL player to lend his brain to research for brain injuries at Boston University's Brain Bank, where it was discovered he had CTE.

His wife, Lisa McHale, acknowledges that there has been progress made since his death, but argues that more needs to be done. Lisa is currently the director of the Family Relation with the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which advocates for the study, treatment, and prevention of the effects of brain trauma.