In The Classroom

Sport & Health Psych Playbook: Addressing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in the NFL

Josh Zettel is a second-year Adler University student pursuing a master’s degree in counseling with a specialization in sport and health psychology.

A recent report confirmed what health professionals have long considered among the most serious concerns about contact sports: All but one athlete in a group of former NFL players who had donated their brains to research suffered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Specifically, 110 out of 111 — an undeniable 99 percent —  from the sampling were neuropathologically diagnosed with CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. The study was published on July 25 in the medical journal, JAMA.

As a second-year student in Adler University’s Master of Arts in Counseling: Specialization in Sport and Health Psychology program, I study how athletes’ mental health impacts their performance not only in sport, but in life. CTE is found in individuals who have experienced repeated head trauma, otherwise known as concussions. The disease develops slowly over time and causes memory loss, confusion, impaired judgement, aggression, depression, anxiety, impulse control issues and suicidal behavior.

A popular film, “Concussion,” starring Will Smith, conveys the link between mental health and quality of life. It suggests that the caliber of both may have declined for NFL players like Mike Webster, Dave Duerson, and Justin Strzelczyk after they left the game.

While the results of the recent study may not come as a shock, industry pros are already taking action. Hall of Famer Warren Sapp responded to the news by donating his brain to concussion research, and providing a video reflection about his wish to leave the game of football safer than when he started. On July 26, Baltimore Ravens starting center John Urschel announced his retirement from the NFL just three years after the start of his professional career. He suffered a concussion in August 2015 and has since noticed a decline in his critical thinking abilities. Now, the 26-year-old father-to-be will, instead, pursue a much less physically and mentally detrimental path on behalf of his health and growing family — a doctorate in mathematics.

Working with contact sports athletes requires a keen awareness of current research to perpetuate informed decisions, and critical issues like those spotlighted in last week’s CTE study are at the center of Adler’s Sport and Health program. The curriculum is unlike others of its kind in that it focuses not only on graduating students to be effective mental performance consultants, but responsible counselors. My studies have confirmed that these two roles consistently overlap and therefore, require similar skill sets. Literature surrounding CTEs and concussions make clear the danger facing athletes in contact sports such as football, hockey, soccer and boxing.

As mental performance consultants, it is extremely important to be aware of issues impacting athletes’ success on the field, court or in the ring. As counselors, we must promote — and advocate for — clients’ mental well-being to allow them to lead fulfilling lives. Yes, sports like football are undoubtedly dangerous. But athletes’ undying passion keeps them competing.

Balancing that love of sport with its respective benefits and risks is no easy feat. Contact sports give athletes a venue to learn and hone invaluable mental skills. When pursued safely and at the guidance of a well-trained, informed practitioner, those skills become integral to athletes’ performance in sport and in life. We should not compromise these invaluable benefits. Let’s simply commit to keeping our athletes safer while they are developing them.