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AT THE Veterans Administration hospital in Bedford, Mass., last Friday, one of the world's foremost experts on repetitive brain trauma—and a major Packers fan too, judging from the Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre bobbleheads on a shelf next to her desk—slipped a slide into a microscope. Dr. Ann McKee, an associate professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University who has been studying the brains of deceased football players, wanted to illustrate the damage that repeated hits to the helmet can cause. This slide of a cross-section of a human male brain, magnified 100 times, showed scores, maybe hundreds, of tiny brownish triangular bits of a toxic protein called tau, choking off cellular life in the brain.
"This is Louis Creekmur," said McKee. "You can see there are hardly any areas untouched by the damage. Like with Wally Hilgenberg, it is widespread in Louis Creekmur. I would call it incredible chaos in the brain. Louis was demented when he died."
Lou Creekmur: 10-year NFL offensive lineman, Pro Football Hall of Famer. Wally Hilgenberg: 15-year NFL linebacker, one of the key members of the Vikings' Purple People Eaters defense.
Over the past three years McKee has been given the brains of 16 former NFL players, some of whom suffered dementia, ALS or severe depression. Families of the players wondered whether there was a link between football and the psychological, physical or behavioral problems that afflict some older players. Rigorous testing has been completed on 14 of the brains; 13 were diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the condition that was so widespread in the brains of Creekmur and Hilgenberg. In addition McKee has examined the brains of deceased college and high school football players and found evidence of CTE in several of them as well.
"I can say confidently that this is a distinctive disorder that you don't develop in the general population," McKee said. "In fact, I have never seen this disease in any person who doesn't have the kind of repetitive head trauma that football players would have."
McKee spoke three days after the NFL came out with its new points of emphasis on helmet-to-helmet shots, fining three players the eye-opening total of $175,000 for frightening hits in Week 6 and warning that suspensions were the next step on the disciplinary ladder if such blows continued. As she gathered up the slides of the damaged brain tissues of NFL players, McKee considered a question: What would she say if she could speak to Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather (fined $50,000 for a helmet hit on Ravens tight end Todd Heap) or Steelers linebacker James Harrison (fined $75,000 for his second offense, a shot on Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi)?
"I wouldn't say anything," she answered. "I'd just show them these slides."
KNOW THE RULES, and play by the rules. You are on notice."
In the meeting rooms of all 32 teams last week, players saw a four-minute video produced by the league and narrated by NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson, who is in charge of discipline. The video showed nine big hits. Six were plays that involved helmet-on-helmet contact or defenders launching themselves at defenseless receivers, the kind of plays that will result in discipline from the league office. The other three—including a decleating shot across the middle by Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis on Jets tight end Dustin Keller—were examples of hits that were within the rules because players did not launch themselves or strike their targets in the head or neck.
It's probably inaccurate to say all the players heard the entire presentation. Many of them were too busy catcalling the video—and the message.