In his days as a starting running back for the Steelers, Jerome Bettis benefited from a good lead blocker. Now he hopes to help pave the way for future athletes across all contact sports, even beyond football.
Bettis was in Oakland for Thursday’s announcement of the National Sports Brain Bank, a long-in-the-making initiative spearheaded by the University of Pittsburgh. In a city where much work has been done to advance the research of concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, those on the ground floor of this program believe this to be a watershed moment in building the foundation for a better understanding of brain injuries and their complex connection to sport — football, especially.
The NSBB seeks pledges from those willing to donate their brains and participate in a longitudinal study so that researchers can try to have more definitive answers about the link between traumatic brain injuries — concussions, for instance — and neurodegenerative effects later in life. Those at the forefront of the brain bank want it to become an invaluable resource for learning how to refine criteria for the diagnosis of CTE, which can only be identified posthumously.
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“It’s about having that understanding, internally, that I am doing something for the next generation,” Bettis said. “I’m trying to provide some understanding, some knowledge for the generations that come behind me. Whether it’s my children, my children’s children, or someone else’s child, maybe — just maybe — this research will change the trajectory of someone’s life. That’s what it’s all about.”
Bettis is believed to be one of the first NFL alumni in the Hall of Fame to make a commitment to a brain bank. Joining him in that pledge is another former Steelers ball-carrier, Merril Hoge, who has been outspoken on issues related to concussions, which ended his career after eight seasons.
Hoge joined Bettis on the dais for Thursday’s news conference, and both are board members of the Chuck Noll Foundation, one of three organizations providing seed money for the Pitt brain bank. The other two are the Pittsburgh Foundation and Richard King Mellon Foundation, and Hoge addressed head-on any implication that this will be a pro-football study given the backing of prominent current and former members of the Steelers organization. Team president Art Rooney II is the board chair of the foundation that bears the name of the four-time Super Bowl-winning Steelers coach.
“If you want to think this is going to be a biased brain bank, well, that was exposed by their invitation for all brains,” Hoge said, standing to the left of Dr. Julia Kofler, who will take the lead of this program as the director of Pitt’s division of neuropathology. “When you say anything and all things, then you are open to follow the structure of science. That’s what science has to do. It has to look at all things and everything.”
Dr. Joseph Maroon of UPMC, who has been the Steelers’ team neurosurgeon for decades, also dismissed any notion among the medical community that the work of Dr. Kofler and Dr. Oscar Lopez — director of Pitt’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center — will be compromised in any way by outside involvement. None of the entities gifting grants to support Dr. Kofler’s efforts will try to steer her in any particular direction, Dr. Maroon added.
“There’s no Steelers involvement. The Pittsburgh Foundation, the Richard K. Mellon Foundation and the Chuck Noll [Foundation] simply have contributed funds, with no strings attached, to the University of Pittsburgh,” said Dr. Maroon, also a clinical professor at Pitt. “The suggestion that there’s some type of advantage or collusion or conflict of interest is nonsense.”
The NFL has seen an uptick in players stepping away from the game before the typical retirement age, often citing injury concerns, concussions in particular. Participation at the youth football level continues to decline, according to national studies, while many transition to different forms of the game (6-player football, 8-player football and 9-player football are seeing a rise).
Bettis himself has been critical of the mother of all leagues. In a 2017 interview, he admitted he felt players were “taken advantage of” during his playing days. His gripe at the time was that, back then, the NFL withheld at least some information from players about the risks involved. Now that CTE is much more a part of the national lexicon, Bettis is on board with doing his part to give successors a clear picture of “the education” on how playing the game can affect someone when they hang up their jersey.
“Kids are going to play football regardless,” said Bettis, who isn’t sure how many concussions he may have had in his career because he didn’t view it in that way. “That’s what people don't understand. People think if you put this [medical] information out and make it available, nobody’s going to want to play football. That’s not the case. It’s an incredible game. Kids love playing football. It’s not a situation where this information is going to scare everyone away. This information is to provide understanding, perspective, and assess risk.”
Those who register to be part of the National Sports Brain Bank — a new sign-up came in while Pitt live-streamed their Thursday announcement — will be asked to provide a range of information about their sports played, trauma and medical history, cognitive symptoms and behavioral symptoms. More than 2,000 brains already have been sent to Pitt’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center over the past three decades, and the experts want to cast a wide net to find examples of anyone from a teenager who had significant damage to a person who lived into their 80s or 90s with little to no neurological effects.
Bettis has a son who’s a standout high school player in Atlanta. He has a daughter diagnosed with multiple concussions from playing basketball. Jerome Bettis Jr. is at the same school as the twin daughters of Dr. Regis Haid, president of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons from 2021-22. Dr. Haid joined his longtime friend Dr. Maroon on Thursday in Pittsburgh. Both played rugby in college and both have pledged their brains to the NSBB, like Bettis and Hoge.
“This is just not about retired football players,” Dr. Haid said. “This is about our society writ large. This is about our families.
“The important thing is, how do we make this diagnosis scientifically and how do we figure out the risk factors? How do we educate the players and the parents? Joe and I get calls weekly from parents about their sons and daughters and the ability to play contact sports.”
Dr. Maroon agreed that this brain bank endeavors to build on its predecessors and research that has come before. As awareness of CTE increases, so does the looming fear of it.
“There are so many unanswered questions,” he said. “What’s the incidence? How common is it? What are the factors that contribute to it? How significant are concussions and brain trauma? How do you differentiate from Alzheimer’s and other diseases of aging that people have? These are seminal questions that need to be answered to try to get more solid information so that everybody who has a concussion doesn't think they’re going to develop CTE.”