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Reading Minds: Trauma and Neuroscience in the Age of CTE

Wed, August 30, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Sheraton Boston, 3, Beacon G

Abstract

This paper investigates two pivotal cases in building (and disrupting) the scientific consensus about the connections between sports, brain trauma, and the neurodegenerative disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The first concerns the 2016 death of Kevin Turner, a retired NFL fullback who was diagnosed years earlier with Amyothropic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and was believed to have died as a result of this condition. Yet following his passing, scientists discovered that Turner’s brain exhibited advanced levels of CTE and attributed his death to the now infamous neurodegenerative disease. Dr. Ann McKee, the lead scientist who studied Turner’s brain post-mortem, asserted that whether abiding by the clinical diagnosis of ALS or the neuropathological diagnosis of CTE, it was “fair to say [that] football caused his death.” The second case involves the 2015 suicide of Todd Ewen, a retired NHL enforcer who in his final years demonstrated symptoms characteristic of CTE, including memory loss and depression. After examining his brain post-mortem, however, researchers announced that Ewen did not have CTE as many in the hockey world and scientific community suspected. In this paper, I compare and contrast the reactions to the deaths of these two retired athletes. By analyzing media coverage of the medical controversies surrounding each player and selected scientific studies of CTE, I interrogate how public narratives detailing these neuroscientific “discoveries” shed light on complex manifestations of biological determinism in the context of sport’s “concussion crisis.” I also advocate for expanding definitions of trauma by re-situating cultural and emotional experience alongside the neurobiological explanations that dominate contemporary sports media discourse.

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