Over the past decade, we have learned a significant amount about head injuries in sports and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Although there is plenty we still do not know about CTE – and we cannot detect it in living patients – what we know so far has helped us understand, or try to understand, some troubling behavior in former athletes.
Recently, an autopsy of ex-NFL player Phillip Adams revealed that he was suffering from stage 2 CTE, a severe case of the disease. Adams’ 20 years as a cornerback provide an explanation for his CTE diagnosis, as repetitive head injuries are typically the cause of CTE. While it’s unfortunately unsurprising for a former NFL player’s autopsy to reveal CTE, Adams’ case is of particular interest because of his violent past and criminal behavior.
In April 2021, Adams shot and killed six people before taking his own life when he was only 32 years old. Adams’ victims include Dr. Robert Lesslie, Barbara Lesslie, the Lesslie’s two grandchildren, and two HVAC technicians who were working at the Lesslie’s home at the time of the murders. Some people who were close to Adams have insisted that Adams did not drink or do drugs, which leaves more reason to be concerned over Adams’ mental state.
Now that it has been shown that Adams suffered from CTE at the time of these murders, it will likely be used as the sole excuse for his crimes and unjustifiable behavior. Dr. Ann McKee, the doctor who analyzed Adams’ brain, explained that “There were inklings that he was developing clear behavioral and cognitive issues.” McKee went on to explain that she doesn’t think Adams snapped, and that “it appeared to be a cumulative progressive impairment. He was getting increasingly paranoid, he was having increasing difficulties with his memory, and he was very likely having more and more impulsive behaviors…”
Adams isn’t the first NFL player to be shown to have suffered from CTE after having committed serious crimes. Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez made headlines during 2013 when he was convicted of murder and again in 2017 when Hernandez committed suicide in his prison cell. Hernandez was eventually found to have committed additional murders, and his erratic behavior and crimes were subsequently linked to stage 2 CTE as well.
An important thing to consider is to what extent should CTE be to blame for these former NFL players committing serious crimes. Is it just an easy way out to explain something difficult? Or is CTE entirely to blame? While I’m not in the medical field, the answer to this is likely that CTE is not entirely to blame for these crimes. An interesting study conducted by doctors at the University at Buffalo Concussion Clinic analyzes the findings of CTE in former athletes, with one of the main concerns being that these autopsies and brain studies are largely conducted by the same pathologist: Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University (BU) and her colleagues at BU. (Willer et al., 2020). In addition to performing the studies in Adams and Hernandez, McKee has conducted a majority of CTE studies on athletes across a wide range of sports, including boxing and hockey. (Willer et al., 2020).
The Buffalo study acknowledged that BU’s creation of a “brain bank has been instrumental to the expansion of research on CTE.” (Willer et al., 2020) However, the Buffalo study also considered that “the sample studied may not be representative of the entire population of former contact sport athletes.” (Willer et al., 2020) One of the most notable aspects considered by the doctors at UB is that there may be other health conditions leading to neurocognitive decline. UB’s doctors noted that “little consideration has been given to other causes of neurocognitive decline, such as lifestyle issues or a history of musculoskeletal pain, that is not directly related to a history of head injuries.” (Willer et al., 2020).
While the explanation that Adams’ actions were caused by CTE has been widely shared over various media platforms over the past week, it’s essential to consider that there may be other factors that lead to his actions, and that the organization that conducted Adams’ autopsy may have some bias. Unfortunately, head trauma and CTE are difficult to diagnose and understand, but have served as an easy explanation for those looking to understand crimes caused by former athletes.
Willer, B. S., Haider, M. N., Wilber, C., Esopenko, C., Turner, M., & Leddy, J. (2020). Long-term neurocognitive, mental health consequences of contact sports. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 40(1), 173–186. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.csm.2020.08.012