When it rains, it pours.
My last two posts (here and here) focused on the connection between heading the ball in soccer and an assortment of different brain trauma problems. It was a single event the prompted my initial thoughts on the matter (the suicide of soccer legend Gary Speed), but in the intervening few days, there have been several stories in other news outlets concerning head injuries and sports.
The most poignant has been the New York Times series on the hockey player Derek Boogaard—perhaps the NHL’s most feared enforcer who died of an alcohol and drug overdose at just 28. I enjoyed the first part of the series the most, as it explored the culture of hockey in Canada and the making of a professional fighter (Boogaard, born big and tough, realized early on that his chance at making the big leagues was with his fists, not the accuracy of his shot). But the third installment, investigating Boogaard’s brain is most relevant to the topic at hand:
Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as C.T.E., a close relative of Alzheimer’s disease. It is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. It can be diagnosed only posthumously, but scientists say it shows itself in symptoms like memory loss, impulsiveness, mood swings, even addiction.
More than 20 dead former N.F.L. players and many boxers have had C.T.E. diagnosed. It generally hollowed out the final years of their lives into something unrecognizable to loved ones.
And now, the fourth hockey player, of four examined, was found to have had it, too.
But this was different. The others were not in their 20s, not in the prime of their careers.
The scientists on the far end of the conference call told the Boogaard family that they were shocked to see so much damage in someone so young. It appeared to be spreading through his brain. Had Derek Boogaard lived, they said, his condition likely would have worsened into middle-age dementia.
On November 29, The New York Times also covered a recent class-action lawsuit filed in the Northern District of Illinois asserting that “the N.C.A.A. has been negligent regarding awareness and treatment of brain injuries to athletes”:
The legal action comes after a five-year flurry of awareness of brain injuries in contact sports and follows lawsuits filed this year by dozens of former N.F.L. players who claim the league was negligent in its handling of brain trauma. The issue has moved from science labs to Congress and now to courtrooms, where the financial exposure of the sport’s governing bodies may be tested.
The N.F.L. is subsidizing care for some of the most seriously damaged of its former players, after public and Congressional pressure forced the league to acknowledge the gravity of the issue. But the damage did not begin with the first hit in an N.F.L. training camp. Players have been absorbing blows to the brain since they were children.
This all leads to a tough question: Is it time to change our contact sports?
I am a very serious sports fan and I understand those who find the very notion of hockey without fighting, soccer without heading, and football without tackling laughable at best. I’ll admit: I love watching LaRon Landry cream a receiver and Andy Carroll smack home a header. But the fact of the matter is that hockey, soccer, football, lacrosse, and boxing are just games. The rules are invented. They have changed in the past and they can change again.
As prudent a move as it is, do I think removing dangerous contact from these sports is likely in the near term?
Unfortunately, my answer is no.
As the evidence continues to build that sports are seriously endangering athletes, I think we’ll see two things happen. First, there will be changes at the margins that don’t get to the core of the problem but make leagues appear as if they are being responsive (e.g., fining NFL players more heavily who engage in helmet-on-helmet hits). Second, we’ll see an increasing backlash from those who feel that this is just another example of how know-it-all “experts” and “nannies” are ruining the fun—indeed, attacking the very foundations of our way of life. These folks will argue that everyone knows that sports are dangerous and that people should be allowed to exercise their free choice. They may point out that athletes get paid lots of money to assume the risk of serious head injuries. And, in all likelihood, they’ll trot out the slippery-slope argument to suggest that if we change the rules of football, we’ll be on the road to totalitarianism where all freedoms are removed under the false promise of “eliminating dangers.”
That’s silliness. Rule changes made in the name of public health aren’t going to kill sports and they certainly aren’t going to destroy America.
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