Former professional football player and TV commentator Frank Gifford, who died in August at age 84, suffered from a degenerative brain disease triggered by the effect of repetitive head trauma.
“We as a family made the difficult decision to have his brain studied in hopes of contributing to the advancement of medical research concerning the link between football and traumatic brain injury,” Gifford’s family said in a statement released Wednesday.
The National Football League has come under fire from former players and health advocates for not doing enough to prevent head injuries. The league agreed to pay more than $765 million in 2013 to settle claims of brain trauma by retired athletes, with funds going to concussion-related compensation, medical exams and research. The league didn’t admit to any wrongdoing.
A team of pathologists diagnosed Gifford’s condition as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive degenerative brain disease, according to the statement. He died of natural causes.
The family said it decided to disclose his condition “to honor Frank’s legacy of promoting player safety dating back to his involvement in the formation of the NFL Players Association in the 1950s.”
Gifford played in the NFL for 12 years, all for the New York Giants. He later segued into broadcasting and was a co-host of “Monday Night Football” on ABC for many years.
“We support the family’s decision to contribute to the discussion and research of an issue we take very seriously,” the Giants said in an e-mailed statement.
While the NFL has put in place stronger procedures trying to reduce player concussions and spur earlier treatment of head injuries, the league’s protocol has been called into question by an injury suffered last weekend by St. Louis Rams quarterback Case Keenum.
CTE, tied to serious hits that cause concussions and lighter repeated jabs that have no symptoms, was first diagnosed in boxers in the 1920s. Subsequent research has linked it to a variety of sports including football and soccer. The damage leads to memory loss, confusion, problems with anger, impulse control, depression and eventually dementia.
Concern, Not Alarm
There isn’t yet a consensus among pathologists on what constitutes a diagnose of the condition, according to Dr. Geoffrey Manley, vice chairman of neurological surgery at the University of California at San Francisco. Manley is on the medical advisory board for the GE-NFL Head Health Initiative.
“We don’t know how many hits Frank Gifford took or if he had a genetic susceptibility to this,” Manley said in an interview. “There’s cause for concern, but not cause for alarm. You can’t say everybody that played football has this happening to them. Nor can you say that some people who played haven’t had this happen to them.”
An NFL spokesman contacted Wednesday declined to comment on the Gifford family statement.
“Concussion,” a film portrayal of real-life brain researcher Dr. Bennet Omalu, who published findings of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in U.S. football players, opens Dec. 25 and stars Will Smith.
–With assistance from Andrew Pollack and Michelle Fay Cortez.
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