Thursday, November 5, 2009

Football and Brain Injury

The World Series has been, understandably, the talk of New York as the Yankees won yet another championship. For the next couple of months, it will be football season. The October 19 New Yorker had a sobering article on football, describing it as carrying a certainty of head trauma that puts it on a par with boxing. It describes in grim detail the symptomatic and clinical manifestations of successive head traumas. The following is one of several disturbing passages describing the experience of one player.

One evening in August, Kyle Turley was at a bar in Nashville with his wife and some friends. It was one of the countless little places in the city that play live music. He’d ordered a beer, but was just sipping it, because he was driving home. He had eaten an hour and a half earlier. Suddenly, he felt a sensation of heat. He was light-headed, and began to sweat. He had been having episodes like that with increasing frequency during the past year—headaches, nausea. One month, he had vertigo every day, bouts in which he felt as if he were stuck to a wall. But this was worse. He asked his wife if he could sit on her stool for a moment. The warmup band was still playing, and he remembers saying, “I’m just going to take a nap right here until the next band comes on.” Then he was lying on the floor, and someone was standing over him. “The guy was freaking out,” Turley recalled. “He was saying, ‘Damn, man, I couldn’t find a pulse,’ and my wife said, ‘No, no. You were breathing.’ I’m, like, ‘What? What?’ ”

They picked him up. “We went out in the parking lot, and I just lost it,” Turley went on. “I started puking everywhere. I couldn’t stop. I got in the car, still puking. My wife, she was really scared, because I had never passed out like that before, and I started becoming really paranoid. I went into a panic. We get to the emergency room. I started to lose control. My limbs were shaking, and I couldn’t speak. I was conscious, but I couldn’t speak the words I wanted to say.”

The article alternates between wrenchingly personal anecdotes to scenes from a pathology lab that are explained in human terms. It rates the force of head on collisions of players in terms of the number of g's . (X times force of gravity). Apparently, there is a cumulative effect, leading to numerous instances of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), which manifests itself as being much like Alzheimers but is actually caused by repeated concussions.

The article presents pathological studies of deceased players as well as statistical studies such as the following.

"Research released the findings of an N.F.L.-funded phone survey of just over a thousand randomly selected retired N.F.L. players—all of whom had played in the league for at least three seasons. Self-reported studies are notoriously unreliable instruments, but, even so, the results were alarming. Of those players who were older than fifty, 6.1 per cent reported that they had received a diagnosis of “dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or other memory-related disease.” That’s five times higher than the national average for that age group. For players between the ages of thirty and forty-nine, the reported rate was nineteen times the national average. (The N.F.L. has distributed five million dollars to former players with dementia.)

“A long time ago, someone suggested that the [C.T.E. rate] in boxers was twenty per cent,” McKee told me. “I think it’s probably higher than that among boxers, and I also suspect that it’s going to end up being higher than that among football players as well. Why? Because every brain I’ve seen has this. To get this number in a sample this small is really unusual, and the findings are so far out of the norm. I only can say that because I have looked at thousands of brains for a long time. This isn’t something that you just see. I did the same exact thing for all the individuals from the Framingham heart study. We study them until they die. I run these exact same proteins, make these same slides—and we never see this.”

In equally graphic detail, it discusses Michael Vick and his conviction for dog fighting. Well before the article is through, the authour has you wondering just how superior dog fight fans are to football fans. The article drops the interesting bit of trivia that dog fighting was a respected sport in the 19th century. It clearly suggested that we should rethink our attitudes towards sports that make brain damage a virtual certainty.

We have just finished baseball season. Although it is possible for a baseball player to be injured, under normal circumstances, there is no need to be concerned about head trauma. Baseball has evolved over the decades since it was first codified and played in its current form. Could there not be a redesign of football? Could it not be turned into a sport that is as enjoyable to watch with a ban on head butting?

There are a lot of fun things that have been banned because they are simply too dangerous. Powerful fireworks, drag racing in the city and bare knuckles fighting have been banished from respectable, professional sports. Safety equipment has been introduced into car racing that has almost completely eliminated death from the picture. There is no reason that football could not be redesigned to make it as safe as baseball.

We have progressed to the point that gladiator sports of ancient times are no longer practiced. It is time for us to be as concerned about human welfare as we rightfully are about animal welfare. A man who is too old to play football still has a mind with which to earn a living and enjoy the rest of his life. To take even that away by failing to protect him during his sports career is truly shameful. We can do far better than we are doing now for those who entertain us. Knowing what we now know, we must find a better way to play football. It's the right thing to do.

1 comment:

urbanadder22 said...

You are so right! Injuries resulting from terrific collisions especially helmet to helmet add nothing to the game of football.

Unfortunately, the trend nowadays is towards more brutality rather than away from it. Boxing is a brutal entertainment, but it is being eclipsed by the new gladiatorial entertainments that take place in octagons and cage-like enclosures.

Faces are smashed bloody and limbs are twisted to be victorious in these contests.

Not that I am against the use of force, physical and technological, in warfare. To a merciless enemy no mercy can be shown.

There should be no room, however, for cruelty and the disregard for the continued health of contestants in the entertainments we call "sports."

Thank you for pointing this out to us.