Demaryius Thomas died young suffering from CTE

After his death, Super Bowl winner Demaryius Thomas is diagnosed with CTE. The National Football League still only takes half-hearted action against head injuries – why?

Demaryius Thomas probably suffered from two diseases at the same time.

Jack Dempsey/AP

Demaryius Thomas became rich through sport. He played in the National Football League (NFL) for ten years and was one of the league’s best receivers at times. On top of that, he was considered a charismatic and team-oriented player; for this he was honored by the public and gilded by his employers. Thomas has earned almost $75 million in a decade playing football.

Thomas will no longer be able to spend the money. Last December he collapsed in the shower and died. Thomas was 33 years old. What has happened there?

Thomas was autopsied after death. The investigations by the doctors at the University of Boston confirmed what many had already suspected: the former football star suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE for short, or boxer’s syndrome. This disease is triggered by repeated blows to the head. The shock among players and fans was great; it seemed to some that even superstars like Thomas are not immune to CTE.

He missed the Super Bowl party because of a head injury

The CTE specialists in Boston are world leaders in their field. If a footballer’s brain lands on their autopsy table, there’s a 90 percent statistical chance the doctors will diagnose the disease. A total of 320 former professional football players were diagnosed with CTE. The disease can only be clearly recognized after death. There is no treatment option.

Like many of his fellow sufferers, Thomas suffered from typical symptoms of CTE before his death: depression, outbursts of anger, memory loss, panic attacks and difficulty concentrating. There were phases when he could hardly leave the house for weeks, reports those around him.

Thomas received many blows to the head; Wide receivers like him are particularly vulnerable to being brutalized. In February 2016, Thomas won the Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos. But he couldn’t really celebrate the fulfillment of his boyhood dream. He was thrown so hard on the field by opponent Luke Kuechly that he had to leave the party early.

Seizures after a car accident

However, how closely Thomas’ early death is related to CTE is a matter of debate. The former sports star had other ailments. In 2019 he sped through Denver in his car at 110 km/h, 50 km/h would have been allowed. Thomas had an accident, the vehicle overturned, the footballer had to be cut out of the wreckage with tools. After the accident, he was plagued by seizures and fell down stairs several times.

Thomas wanted to play another season of football in 2020, but dropped out when the seizures became more frequent and severe. He repeatedly caused other traffic accidents because he cramped at the wheel. In the summer of 2021 he announced his resignation. But why did Thomas die at the age of only 33?

Ann McKee of the CTE center at Boston University told US media that Thomas may have suffocated from a seizure. However, cramps are not typical symptoms of CTE. “I guess the problem was that he had two diseases at the same time,” McKee said. It is unclear whether the speeding in Denver had a connection with CTE.

Demaryius Thomas resigned in 2021 because of seizures.


The problem is swept under the table

Thomas is just one of many former footballers who have died before their 35th birthday. What they all have in common is that they suffered from CTE. Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2013 for murder and committed suicide in prison in 2016; he was 27 years old. Phillip Adams, 32, shot and killed six people last year. Both were diagnosed with CTE.

CTE specialist McKee told ABC TV: “CTE itself is not fatal. CTE changes personality.» The facts are on the table, but the NFL and fans like to downplay the issue.

In three studies from 2005, 2006 and 2010, the neurologist Bennet Omalu showed for the first time a connection between American football and the risk of CTE disease. He turned his research over to the NFL, believing the league would take action. But NFL officials denied their sport causes CTE. It was not until 2016 and under great legal and public pressure that the NFL admitted the connection.

“Affected athletes are afraid to talk about it”

Dez Bryan, a former Dallas Cowboys star, wrote on Instagram about Causa Thomas: “A lot of us live with CTE and the NFL knows about it. But affected athletes are afraid to talk about it.”

Despite the overwhelming scientific facts, there have been no fundamental rule changes in the NFL to date. American football thrives on its toughness, at least that’s what the majority of fans believe. The games are reminiscent of gladiator fights, and some TV commentators do not condemn brutal hits, but rather praise the players for their toughness.

The aggressive game system, the duel man against man make the NFL the most successful sports league in the world. Last year, the turnover was the equivalent of 15 billion Swiss francs – that’s almost as much as the five major European football leagues generate together.

The New York Times surveyed in 2019 before a college league game fans about CTE. The journalists were answered with platitudes such as “We have to make sport as safe as possible”. Or: “Every player knows what he’s getting himself into and plays voluntarily.” But the latter explanation falls short.

A football talent can study for free in college, a good education is the first step out of poverty, the best players earn big money as professionals. Thomas came from a precarious background. The mother was sentenced to 20 years in prison for drug dealing when Thomas was eleven. The boss of the drug ring was apparently the grandmother of the later sports star, she received “life imprisonment”. For many footballers, sport is the only way out of poverty, they have no choice.

The NFL is trying to fix the CTE problem with money, and there’s plenty of that. A fund was set up for those affected, and the league made donations for research and the development of new helmets. Collisions with the head, so-called “helmet-to-helmet contacts”, have been banned for some time.

Still, the number of concussion cases in the NFL isn’t decreasing, it’s just stagnating. It needs stricter rules, rigorous investigations and concussion bans, and better protective gear. But the NFL is only taking half-hearted measures, the popularity of the sport remains high despite CTE, the stadiums are full, and TV money is flowing lavishly.

The fate of Thomas is unlikely to change the league’s stance. Her primary concern is revenue: the league wants to increase sales to $25 billion by 2027.

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