- For now, CTE can only be diagnosed in the brains of the deceased. But a test for living patients is on the horizon, raising all kinds of moral and philosophical issues for active players
There’s no test to diagnose CTE in living patients. Yet. But the Boston University CTE Center’s Ann McKee believes one could be ready in as little as five years. SI asked seven NFL players to contemplate that possibility and its ramifications
SI: If a test to diagnose CTE existed, would you take it?
KIRK COUSINS, Redskins QB: Yeah, sure. I think there are other guys who would say, “I’m going to play, regardless; CTE is not going to change the way I approach the game, so why would I want that hanging over my head?” I’m in a different position as a QB. My head’s not getting hit every play. There are things I can do to avoid that—slide, get out of bounds . . . .
TAHIR WHITEHEAD, Lions OLB: For sure. I think it would be a good idea to make it a part of youth football and to have people get periodically checked.
RYAN KALIL, Panthers C: If there was a test, yeah. But knowing that I have CTE—or that I don’t—wouldn’t be enough.
CHRIS LONG, Eagles DE: I would take it—but I would also be very careful not to assign, like, predictable behavior to my results. I don’t believe it’s a slam dunk that if you have CTE you’re going to “lose it.” We’re probably the last generation that will have no idea what’s going on [in our brains]. I think the next generation is really going to know a lot.
ARTIE BURNS, Steelers CB: I definitely know I have it. I’m going to [test positive for] CTE. I don’t need a test. Is it going to tell me how much I have? We play a physical sport, man. Humans are not made to run into each other.
DION JORDAN, Seahawks DE: No. Not right now.
SI: Because you’re just getting back into the league after two years away?
JORDAN: [Nods.] I don’t think a lot of players would take it while they’re still playing.
SI: The players who say they would, are they a little more secure in their careers?
JORDAN: That, or guys on their way out—they would take it.
SI: Do you want such a test to exist?
LONG: I think it would be the best thing for players if we could all know what we’re getting into. But I believe in research, and I believe that within a decade or two we’re going to know how to diagnose CTE; we’re going to be able to predict how it manifests. I even think we’ll possibly be able to reverse the effects. I really believe that. I’m hopeful.
KALIL: The science we have now, on all kinds of ailments . . . Twenty or 30 years ago, most of the guys who did what [Panthers linebacker] Thomas Davis did [tearing his right ACL three times], they were just done right away. The brain is a little trickier, but a brain injury can be comparable. The body is incredible at healing itself. And we’ve gotten a lot more educated on recognizing concussions.
SI: What if you were required to take the test in order to play, because of potential liability issues?
LONG: I’d like that. The more you know, the better.
WHITEHEAD: It should really be up to the players.
MICHAEL BENNETT, Seahawks DE: Players should be required to know. I’d want to know. But not a lot [of guys would take the test]. Everybody would be scared to know a little truth about themselves. Nobody wants to take an AIDS test, for example. Just the possibility of having it would freak you out.
COUSINS: If teams wanted that information I would say No. I’m not comfortable with that. I don’t want to be cut or traded or …
SI: Part of the thinking is that it could become necessary to test for insurance or liability reasons.
COUSINS: With more information comes more information. We haven’t had to deal with that yet, but I’m sure it’s on the horizon.
SI: What about after you retired—then would you take it?
JORDAN: Yeah, of course. I’d want to know. It would be a good thing to [show] my future wife too. [Laughs.]
SI: Imagine you took the test right now and tested positive. Would that change anything?
WHITEHEAD: I would consider retirement. I have a wife, three sons.
COUSINS: I’d say, “I’m good” [and retire]. It’s all about timing. If this had been 2015 or ’14, I may have said, “Look, I’m on the cusp of financially being able to help my family; I’m going to stick it out a few more years.” But if you’re in Year 9, 10, 11, and you’ve done a lot of good things, then I think the decision-making changes. It’s a fluid situation depending on where you are in your career.
LONG: It would be hard not to [change you]. It would be in the back of your head. You can get anxiety just thinking about the fact that you might have CTE. Say you didn’t have CTE, but somebody were to tell you that you did. That could cause mental and emotional problems. You have to be prepared to live with that reality, even if you don’t know what it means.
BENNETT: I’d retire. [Nods.]
KALIL: Look, there is no misconception about what we do, that it’s not great for the body, the brain. But it’s a choice we make, and we’re more educated now. There are a lot of people who get concussions who don’t play contact sports. Whenever they throw out a number—X number of players have been diagnosed with CTE after they’ve passed away—my immediate question is: What does that mean in contrast to the general population? It’s a fairly young issue, and there’s still a lot we don’t know.
SI: Imagine a scenario in which every player takes the test and the majority test positive. Then what?
WHITEHEAD: It wouldn’t [matter] whether everybody had it or I was the only one. I’d make a personal decision.
LONG: I already know football isn’t good for you. At the end of the day, I’m able to do a lot of good things [because of this game]. There’s a give and take with everything. That doesn’t mean I would be excited about my son playing, but here I am. I have faith in modern medicine, and I have faith that the league will eventually figure this out.
Reporting by Greg Bishop, Jonathan Jones, Kalyn Kahler and Robert Klemko