APPLETON, Wis. – Dr. Ann McKee didn’t intend to become a lightning rod in the contentious national debate over the impact of concussions on professional football players.
But while the Appleton native hasn’t sought the spotlight, she hasn’t shied away from speaking her mind, either. Concussions and head trauma are issues of vital importance to McKee, a widely known neuropathologist and die-hard Green Bay Packers fan.
“I’m concerned about the health of former athletes, and I want to make sure we provide for the health and well-being of young athletes as well,” said McKee, who has examined the brains of dozens of ex-National Football League players and found signs of a degenerative brain disease found in athletes and others with a history of concussions.
The work of McKee – and others in the field – closely is being watched by those who play, coach and supervise the game.
One author has referred to McKee – the director of neuropathology at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in Bedford, Mass. – as “the woman who would save football.” Sports Illustrated writer Peter King has called her a hero for her groundbreaking work on uncovering the potential dangers of playing organized football – from the NFL down to the pee-wee leagues.
But she has critics as well.
In early October, PBS aired a Frontline documentary “League of Denial,” which focused on the NFL’s response to concussion-related injuries to current and former players. McKee, who prominently was featured, later was taken to task by some in the medical profession who said she was overstating the problem, causing undue stress on the sport and relying on data that was incomplete, unproven and unreliable.
McKee keenly is aware of the criticism, but she doesn’t back off on her belief that concussions pose a serious risk to current, former and future football players.
“We’re always going to have to deal with severe critics,” she said in a recent newspaper interview. “(But) a preponderance of the evidence supports us. We need to do something.”
McKee’s extensive research into the effects of concussions on pro football players began in earnest several years ago.
The early studies revealed repetitive brain trauma on former NFL players was taking a dramatic toll. She examined brains that were donated to the Bedford center to determine if there was a relationship between multiple blows to the head and physical, behavioral or psychological problems. McKee found a link to chronic traumatic encephalopathy – simply known as CTE – which is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, impulse control problems, aggression and progressive dementia.
“Very early in the research, I knew it was very important,” McKee said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I’d never seen anything like this before. There were red lights and flashes. It has mushroomed into something that couldn’t have been predicted.”
McKee said concussions have had serious consequences for professional, college and high school football players.
“It really has far-reaching implications that I initially didn’t know anything about,” she said.
While she has examined nearly 50 brains of former football players, McKee agreed with those who said more players need to be studied.
“It’s going to require the analysis of many hundreds of brains,” she said. “That’s so important. We’ve learned so much from every brain donation. But I think some individuals are asking for a level of proof that we cannot provide by studying (dead) human beings. It isn’t ethically possible to kill people and look at their brains.”
McKee’s brother, Dr. Charles McKee, of Appleton, said the criticism of her sample size and her findings are unwarranted.
“We don’t know how pervasive this is; she admits this,” he said. “(But) this is not an occasional rare thing. What stance are they defending with their criticism?”
Ann McKee said she will continue to examine brains of deceased football players in the coming years. But she would like to broaden the scope of her work.
“It would be really important to have a national registry of concussions and effects to widen the scope (of inquiry),” she said. “We could assess athletes of all sports and develop a bookmark for concussions and taking care of athletes. It’s going to require a nationwide, cohesive effort. One thing I’m very focused on is how to define this disease in life and come up with a way to treat it.”