The only thing worse than when Tom Brady doesn’t talk about CTE is when he does

Now hear this.
Now hear this.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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It is hard not to look at New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady—and his five Super Bowl rings, four Super Bowl MVPs, supermodel wife, three beautiful children, and face that looks like what a computer would spit back when you type in “handsome guy”—and not think that he must be doing something right.

Brady’s place as one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of American football is secured. His career is also becoming a marvel of human physiology. In a league where the average career lasts only about three years, Brady, at age 40 and after 18 years in the NFL, still seems in his prime.

Brady credits his longevity to the TB12 Method, an intense personal maintenance system designed by Brady and his business partner/personal trainer Alex Guerrero. Brady’s plan has a lot of quirky nutritional advice similar to other attractive celebrities’ wellness regimes: few “acidifying” foods, lots of “alkalizing” foods, no eggplants or tomatoes.

It also has a heavy emphasis on something called “pliability.” In his book, Brady describes pliability as “targeted, deep-force muscle work that lengthens and softens muscles at the same time those muscles are rhythmically contracted and relaxed.” In the New York Times, McMaster University kinesiology professor Stuart Phillips describes pliability as “balderdash.”

Brady is entitled to privately care for his own body in whatever manner he sees fit. But while it’s one thing for Tom Brady to go public with his feelings about tomatoes, it’s another for him to talk about brain health, the single greatest health risk facing his peers in football.

At a panel this week at the Milken Institute 2018 Global Conference in Los Angeles, sportscaster Jim Gray asked Brady if he was “concerned” about the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the NFL. Brady answered:

As an athlete you have to understand the risks, too, of playing. And yeah, you do…it’s a contact sport, collisions, a lot of hits to the head and so forth. But again, how can I be proactive about that? How can I build up my brain strength so that when I do take a hit there’s a little bit of armor there, so to speak?

I do brain games almost daily, 5 to 10 minutes a day to just keep me really sharp. If I take a big hit in the game, I go right back to certain protocols that I have for head trauma, so to speak. And I feel like they really do work for me, and again, to describe those to other people—how can you arm people with that information?

As ESPN the Magazine reported last year, Brady employs a team of neuroscientists and drills himself in cognitive exercises. There is evidence that cognitive exercises can delay the onset of dementia, though not as much to support the brain-training industry’s bolder claims of improved cognitive functioning. High cognitive reserve—the scientific term for the cumulative benefits of a lifetime of academic and intellectual pursuits—appears to delay the onset of dementia, says Helen Ling, a neuroscientist at University College London’s Institute of Neurology who has studied CTE in soccer players. There’s also research indicating that it can accelerate brain injury recovery.

But there is no evidence that brain games can somehow pad one’s skull against trauma, as Brady seems to suggest.

“There really is very little evidence right now that challenging your brain before a concussion will help. We only know that it’s more of a lifetime of intellectual pursuit that seems to help,” says Douglas Smith, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and a member of the NFL’s Scientific Advisory Board (an unpaid role).

There’s still a lot to learn about CTE. Right now it can only be diagnosed after a patient’s death, which makes it difficult to say how it can be prevented. The only verified safeguards against CTE, according to the Mayo Clinic, is to avoid head trauma or, when that’s not an option, to wear sports-specific helmets, treat concussions immediately, and allow the brain to fully heal before a return to the field.

The most worrying part of Brady’s response to Gray’s question is the enthusiasm he showed to “arm” others with this questionable information. When one of the league’s most high-profile players spouts dubious claims about CTE prevention, it draws attention away from meaningful discussions about how the game could or should be changed to protect its athletes.

Brady has been reluctant to speak publicly about CTE, which is never mentioned in his book. In that same talk in LA, he admitted that he’s resisted the switch to new, safer helmet styles recommended by the league. (He no longer has a choice: his preferred helmet style will be banned in the 2019 season.)

But he is eager to talk about the TB12 method. ESPN reported last year that some of Brady’s teammates have been skeptical of TB12, partly because Brady’s firm insistence on personal accountability (“When athletes get injured, they shouldn’t blame their sport”) sounds to some players like absolving the NFL of responsibility for its players’ safety.

For too long, the NFL resisted mounting evidence that its sport caused debilitating brain damage to its players. NFL officials did not publicly acknowledge a link between CTE and football until 2016. CTE is still not one of the recognized conditions covered under the 2017 settlement between the NFL and some 20,000 retired players, in which the NFL agreed to pay an estimated $1 billion for concussion-related health care costs.

When Brady eventually retires, he’ll have the resources to get the best medical care for the rest of his life. The majority of NFL players won’t make anywhere near Brady’s money, and face a retirement of chronic financial problems, chronic physical pain, and a higher-than-average likelihood of cognitive problems. For one of their most visible peers to suggest that brain games are more useful than game changes in preventing CTE doesn’t help them much.