In the wake of Junior Seau’s death, I’ve seen commentary proclaiming the impending end to contact sports, beginning with American football. I wouldn’t miss football but no matter how guilty Ray Ratto makes you feel watching it, I don’t think it will go away, and neither will Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Here’s why: it’s everywhere. That’s also what makes Seau’s suicide, like all suicides, so upsetting. He probably could have been helped. Instead of pretending he couldn’t have been, we need to be thinking of how to help others.
Instead, we get stuff like this:
..it is time to accept the reality that football is every bit as dangerous as its detractors and some brain specialists say it is – and to accept the fact that we as a nation aren’t really prepared to give that much of a damn about it.
We looked the other way with boxing. We looked the other way with hockey, and we’re going to look the other way with MMA when more data comes in. We tolerate nearly anything that happens to others in pursuit of our own entertainment, and if we are the entertainers, we will tolerate nearly anything that allows us to get paid for it. -Ray Ratto
Well, that’s helpful Ray. “Contact sports are dangerous, they will always be, we don’t care because we’re a bloodthirsty mob…”
That’s not my take. I would bet that all those uncaring people really do care, would like to have a way to channel their caring, like accepting adjustments to the game and better protection for the players, not only in equipment and play but also testing and treatment. No matter how horrifying a thing is, caring is not all it takes. We need information.
Think cancer. How terrifying is that, how many people hide from testing and refuse treatment simply because they believe it is hopeless? So let’s not assume that one of the trickier but fairly common injuries sustained by professional athletes is unavoidable, untreatable, fatal and just too horrible to contemplate, okay?
Making it sound like degenerative brain trauma is a game requirement not only encourages denial but it is also patently untrue. CTE develops more in contact sports than elsewhere, but it doesn’t happen to the majority of the players. Look at all those old guys still walking around regaling us with stories of days gone by. They are proof it doesn’t happen to everyone.
It’s unknown if football had anything to do with Seau’s death. But the fact that people quickly drew a possible connection between his death and football violence demonstrates that the NFL’s concussion crisis may have reached a tipping point. -Mark Emmons, Mercury News
Tipping points are good. The question is, which way do we tip?
A number of the articles I came across pointed out that most of the research in the US is being done on the brains of American football players, some boxers and military veterans. In Europe, they’ve study soccer players, and the research they’ve done there suggests that it is a problem in soccer too.
Anyone who watches soccer knows it isn’t a game for the meek, but they don’t go around bashing their heads into each other. No, they just keep whacking themselves in the head with a ball. It can add up, according to an Italian study:
Another study reported increased ALS incidence and mortality in professional Italian soccer players when compared to the general population . Additionally, an incidence study of 7,325 Italian professional soccer players showed an ALS incidence 6.5 times higher than expected. -Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: A Review
Yeah, they said ALS, because CTE looks a whole lot like ALS until you examine the brains post-mortem. Here’s another explanation of the numbers in that study:
Out of 375 deaths, eight were due to ALS. Using Italian mortality statistics as a reference, the expected number of deaths was 0.69 and the corresponding standardized proportional mortality ratio was 11.6 -Severely increased risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis among Italian professional football players
The study got some attention because it didn’t make any sense that soccer players would be so much more inclined to develop classic ALS than the rest of the population. Okay, so it didn’t get that much attention. If it had, we would probably all know about it since that study was published in 2004. But Bryant Gumbel’s special Real Sports episode about concussions mentioned it, which is where I found out about it.
For so many reasons, I don’t believe we are likely to give up all sports that can cause brain trauma, even those that require risking it as part of the game. We would also have to stop riding horses, and probably bicycles too, and what a sterile world we would come to live in if we did all that.
Don’t forget baseball. Even though you aren’t supposed to throw the ball at a batter’s head, even though they have batting helmets now, ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. At least one study has theorized that Gehrig didn’t have ALS at all, but CTE, due to repeated concussions and famously short recovery times between hits to the head. So no more baseball either, certainly not for kids.
Anything that gets you hit in the head is bad for you. We’ve known that since we first started hitting people over the head, people we didn’t like.
Am I exaggerating the situation? So are the doomsayers who tell us we have to choose between contact sports and the humane treatment of professional players. No one can think clearly in a state of panic. As fans we need to panic just enough to get the scientists their resources and their grants, which will not only benefit those entertaining athletes.
I don’t think anyone would argue that military combat is good for us, but we will probably keep doing it anyway. Those soldiers will continue to provide the government with study subjects. There will be progress, but only if we keep talking about it in a productive way, if we keep believing we can learn something useful from the science.
What if we did just let these violent sports fall by the way, like horse racing is fading? Do we cheer a victory for compassion? “Yay! Those poor horses don’t have to run anymore!” Actually, they are still running, younger and younger and less and less fit, legs breaking left and right, being shot and dumped on roadsides at a rate never seen in the sport’s hey day. If you can stomach it, you can read more on that here.
What would the demise of big money contact sports look like anyway? A bold cease-play demanded by fans and athletes? No. It would be the same games, possibly played more recklessly, with the same lack of attention to player safety and care. That would be followed by a gradual shift from highly paid players to less highly paid ones who play knowing the risks, out of desperation. We will have learned nothing.
So let’s not do that. Let’s not simply accept that it’s dangerous and we can’t do anything about it. Right now, we can’t do much, but we can do something. If you are at all inclined to believe what the Department of Federal Medicine says (why not? No one else has any answers yet), CTE should be reasonably preventable, even among those who suffer head trauma. Says Ann McKee:
These guidelines to catch concussions early should be a step in the right direction. “We think that the damage is a result of repetitive injury on top of an uncovered brain, and if the brain is allowed to recover fully that you will not develop this disease” -Often Misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s Disease, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Could Play a Role in Veterans’ Dementia
(Oh look, yet another disease CTE looks like. Great…) Of course, for contact sports fans this isn’t entirely reassuring, because the only guidelines I could find said that full recovery probably takes about three weeks. That’s more than the ten days hockey fans know to look for when sniffing out a concussion in those vague “upper body injury” announcements.
Add to that the multitude of pressures a player may feel to hide or hurry back from a concussion and it’s still pretty grim. Fixing that will take better testing and an overhaul of the economics behind the development and maintenance of players. It isn’t just the game that’s killing them in such numbers, it’s the pressure to take risks after injury. That could be addressed without a lot of new science.
A head injury is uniquely dangerous and hard to treat, but it isn’t a death sentence. Once we get over thinking of it as one, maybe the science can get busy and the problem can be addressed instead of everyone just freaking out about it.
If you want to read more about CTE, I recommend this article from Boston University.