The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘head injury’

What Will Sports Look Like In 20 Years?

Posted by Adam Benforado on December 6, 2011

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.

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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.

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And now, the fourth hockey player, of four examined, was found to have had it, too.

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But this was different. The others were not in their 20s, not in the prime of their careers.

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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.

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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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Review a collection of sports related Situationist posts here or posts related to naive cynicism and backlash here.

Posted in Entertainment, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Brain Injuries and Soccer

Posted by Adam Benforado on November 28, 2011

On Sunday, one of the legends of the soccer world was found dead.

Gary Speed was only 42.  He played for clubs in England’s Premiership for 22 years and holds the record for the most appearances representing Wales for an outfield player.  He had recently taken over as the head coach of the national side and Wales, for the first time in years, had begun to look like a genuinely dangerous team.

But on Sunday, it all ended as Speed took his own life, leaving behind a wife and two sons, aged 13 and 14.

In the coming weeks, we will learn more about the circumstances surrounding the death, but one thing that immediately came to mind upon hearing the tragic news was whether there might be a connection to the string of suicides by football players, boxers, and hockey players who had suffered brain injuries.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy has been documented in autopsies of 20 or so football players who died young, including Dave Dureson, the Pro-Bowl Chicago Bears safety, who shot himself in February.  And there is more general research that shows that people with acquired brain injury are significantly more likely to demonstrate suicidal behaviors than those in the general population.

How might this relate to Gary Speed?

Well, Speed was, as the Guardian noted in its obituary, “an exceptional header of the ball.”  Expertly meeting a gun shot of a cross with his forehead and guiding it in his chosen direction was one of Speed’s special talents.  And he demonstrated that talent for longer than almost anyone: indeed, there are only two players, Ryan Giggs and David James, who played more games in the Premier League.

Although football and boxing have been getting most of the attention lately, we have known for years that there is evidence of chronic traumatic brain injury in professional soccer players.  Indeed, when researchers from the Netherlands looked at a population of professional soccer players in the Netherlands in 1998, the found that they

exhibited impaired performances in memory, planning, and visuoperceptual processing when compared with control subjects. Among professional soccer players, performance on memory, planning, and visuoperceptual tasks were inversely related to the number of concussions incurred in soccer and the frequency of “heading” the ball. Performance on neuropsychological testing also varied according to field position, with forward and defensive players exhibiting more impairment.

We will never know for certain why Gary Speed decided to take his own life, but my hope is that attention will be given to the possibility that the effects of his chosen profession may have contributed to his death.  At present, no one is writing about the role that brain trauma might have played in the tragedy on Sunday, but maybe they should.

In the end, soccer may not be the “safe” alternative to football that so many parents (including my own) have long assumed it to be.

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Related Situationist posts:

Review a collection of sports related Situationist posts by clicking here.

Posted in Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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