Scott Vermillion probably wanted to be remembered as one of Major League Soccer’s finest defenders, but instead the late player will be remembered as the first professional footballer to be diagnosed with a condition associated with kicking. head.
Until it was announced that the brain of Vermillion, who died of acute alcohol and prescription drug poisoning at the age of 40 in 2020, showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the disease was usually associated with sports such as hockey, football and boxing. Over the past two decades, CTE has been discovered in the brains of more than 300 professional footballers.
But, research is still emerging in football, and Stephanie Alessi-LaRosa, MD, a sports neurologist with Hartford HealthCare Ayer Neuroscience Institute, cautioned players, parents and coaches against assuming that erratic behavior is related to CTE. The degenerative brain disease is thought to cause symptoms such as memory loss, depression and aggressive or impulsive behavior, but she pointed out that not all mental health problems are the result of gambling-related injuries.
“I have patients who are reluctant to go into psychiatric treatment because they think they have CTE and they’re doomed,” she told The New York Times. “I think it’s important that patients get the help they need and, if their family is concerned, see a sports neurologist.”
The reason, she explained, is that there is no causal association between head injuries and personality changes and ultimately CTE, which is only diagnosed post mortem.
“Some patients I see would prefer to explain their symptoms by their history of traumatic brain injury, as this may lessen the stigma around mental health issues,” Dr. Alessi-LaRosa said. “There is nothing we can do about head trauma that has already happened, and many factors are involved in the development of psychiatric illness, not just head trauma.”
To date, she said there’s been no clear understanding of why some athletes, like Vermillion, get CTE and others don’t. Research has not clearly established a causal relationship between head injuries and personality changes in life and CTE
“I encourage people to continue playing the sports they love because the benefits always outweigh the risks,” Dr Alessi-LaRosa said, adding that she supported the 2015 American football ban of heading in matches and training for players under 10 and restrictions on heading in training for older players.
Players or parents who are concerned about their health should speak to a sports neurologist, a physician who specializes in neurological injuries resulting from playing formal or informal sports activities.
“There are many treatments available for those who seek help, whether their condition is due to head injuries or something else. This is very important because we want to treat patients during their lifetime instead of leaving them to worry about a diagnosis that may not come until after they die,” said Dr Alessi-LaRosa.
Vermillion, an all-American high school and college student, played four seasons of professional football before retiring with a recurring ankle injury. His family reported that his later years were spent retreating into drug addiction and behaving erratically.