Steelers’ cornerback Artie Burns made some big waves on Wednesday when he participated in the Sports Illustrated Roundtable MMQB along with six other NFL players. Despite being 22 years young and only in his second season as a pro, when asked about the possibility that a new medical test might be employed to identify chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in active NFL players, Burns said, “I definitely know I have it. I’m going to [test positive for] CTE. I don’t need a test. We play a physical sport, man. Humans are not made to run into each other.”
Testing to confirm a diagnosis of CTE thus far has been confined to autopsies performed on the bodies of deceased football players. But according to Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon at NorthShore University HealthSystem (Evanston, IL), as reported in the November issue of the scientific journal Neurosurgery, medical researchers now have the ability to identify CTE in living patients. What’s more, Ann McKee of the Boston University CTE Center believes a test for living patients might be available within five years.
This development carries the likelihood that NFL players’ physicians soon will be able to determine exactly how much brain trauma they’ve suffered at any particular stage of their careers. This capability would alter the entire dynamic of the game because a number of players clearly would not choose to place their long-term health at risk if they knew their relative degree of CTE injury. For example, when asked what they would do if they were to test positive on a CTE test, the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive end Michael Bennett and Washington Redskins’ quarterback Kirk Cousins both indicated they would retire.
Former Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson told the Washington Post on Tuesday that he believes he’s currently suffering from CTE symptoms. For example, Johnson divulged that inner “demons” were coaxing him to scale rooftops and jump off. Johnson has struggled in recent years with anxiety, paranoia, shifting moods and memory loss which have led to unpredictable and violent behavior.
The revelation by Burns that he believes he’s already suffering the effects of CTE is bound to reverberate throughout the NFL and be a hot topic during the league’s off-season meetings. If the newly-developed CTE test is indeed rolled out within the next few years, there’s no doubt as to the importance of such testing for player safety. But viewed strictly through the lens of the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers and what they’re trying to accomplish this season, Burns’ remarks—particularly in the wake of the recent, serious injury to Ryan Shazier—have injected another unexpected element into a season characterized by unusual and offbeat developments.