The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘sports’

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.


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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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 »

The Neuro-Situation of Wins and Losses

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 10, 2011

From Montreal Gazette:

A new National Hockey League season is upon us, Major League Baseball playoffs are in full swing and the National Football League’s regular season has been in session for about a month.

As you fixate on your television, watching every move of your favourite athletes and longing for that great play or crucial win that can serve up a rush that can approach orgasm, consider this: New research from Yale University shows even more of your brain than previously thought physically reacts to something perceived as a win or a loss.

A new study, published in the journal Neuron, outlines experiments showing how most of the brain has heightened activity if one wins or loses a competition such as rock-paper-scissors.

It was a broader effect than what was known before to be a reaction of the central part of the brain in releasing dopamine when something good happens, creating a positive feeling in an individual. Conversely, past evidence has also shown this neurotransmitter is suppressed when an unwanted outcome occurs.

The study’s lead author, Timothy Vickery, a post-doctoral fellow at Yale’s psychology department, said it’s possible that the brain has a similar kind of engagement when its owner is watching sports.

“We didn’t look at that directly in this study, but it wouldn’t be very surprising to me if those sorts of second-hand experiences had the same influence, because you’re sort of identifying with your team, and a win for your team is a win for you,” he said.

Vickery said the high engagement sports fans feel when watching a competition likely comes from the previously known function of the basal ganglia, in the middle of the brain, sending out dopamine when a positive outcome is perceived.

It has its roots, he said, in evolutionary tendencies that favour people and animals that are able to make the right choices to improve chances for survival and create results — such as finding food — that induce dopamine-fuelled feelings of joy.

Vickery said the effect can be vicarious when watching other people participate in sports.

“I think it’s fair to say that, to the extent that you experience those wins and losses as your own, it would have a similar effect on your brain as taking your own actions,” he said.

By conducting MRIs on people while they competed against a computer in games such as rock-paper-scissors, the Yale study found that most parts of subjects’ brains, even beyond the basal ganglia, had physical reactions to both wins and losses.

By analyzing the brain as a whole, Vickery said the researchers could determine whether the individual was experiencing a win or a loss, based on subtle differences in the nature of the patterns. He said it is likely this broadly based brain reaction is somehow related to established theories concerning the reward-punishment function at the brain’s centre. The study, however, could not conclude that.

“My suspicion is that it’s not unrelated, that basically that signal gets sent out from the basal ganglia . . . and sort of filters out through the brain, but we don’t know for sure where it’s coming from. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”


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