Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Head Games

   I love football.  I am almost positive that I started another post like that a couple of years ago.  I am also pretty sure that this will be the third post I have written about football.  As many of my posts on this blog are political in nature, those of you who read this should have come to the conclusion that, well, I love football.  Sixteen guaranteed games a year (a few more if your team is any good), and in this house, we pretty much count the days from the end of one season to the beginning of the next.   After the Flyers and Sixers have disappointed us again, and after the first few months of baseball have us convinced that the Phillies are once again going to tank, we start actively counting down the days until mini-camp, training camp, pre-season, and then... FOOTBALL!!!!  Three of the members of this household play fantasy football.  Almost every game that is televised is broadcast in our house.  We love football.

  The very nature of the game of football is violent.  It's useless to pretend otherwise.  You can't possible sit down and watch four quarters of football and not see at least one player get hurt.  It's usually more than one, although, thankfully, they aren't always taken of the field in a cart or an ambulance.  But honestly, in the course of a game whose entire goal is to get the ball past the goal line, and the other team's goal is to make sure that not only does that not happen, but that they have to get you down on the field for the play to be called dead?  Yes, violence IS the game of football.  So far this year, in the many games I've watched, I've seen a broken collarbone, a shoulder injury, two torn ACL's and numerous likely concussions.  All of this is so that I can set you up to understand that in a game, where the very rules demand a certain level of violence, there are bound to be injuries, and some of those injuries can and will be life changing.  If you want to deny that fact, it's probably best if you stop reading this blog right now.

  In rare instances, a player ends up paralzyed, or worse, but those are very rare occurances.  It's slightly less rare that a player is taken out with what ends up being a career ending injury.  Even still, with medical advances, those injuries occur less often than they used to.  There are a fair share of season ending injuries, the kind the player can come back from, but sometimes he's never really the same.  However, the vast majority of injuries are the four to eight week injuries.  The minor broken bones, the strained muscles, the concussions.  It's the last one that only takes a player out for a few weeks, and yet, might end up belonging in the first category.  The life-changing, and in some cases, life-taking, injuries.

   Just a few years back, the NFL was dragged through the mud in the media, and then hauled before a Congressional committee over the long term effects of head injuries, specifically concussions.  The majority of the research was done by Boston University, but a neuropathologist in Pittsburgh, Dr. Bennett Omalu, was the first to diagnose Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in former NFL Player, Mike Webster.   The researchers in Boston, over the space of several years, saw more cases.  When research commissioned by the NFL was discovered to have come to some of the same conclusions, well, the NFL was in hot water.  Commissioner Roger Goodell began to institute changes to the game, penalties us football lovers have become more than acquainted with:  Helmet to Helmet, Hit on a Defenseless Receiver, Leading with the Head.  All penalties that could have fines levied if the NFL thinks the hit was brutal enough.  To many people it seemed like the NFL got into the act late in the game.  Shocking deaths of NFL players like Junior Seau made it clear that there was a problem, and that problem was directly related to the violence of the sport.  But....if you take out all the violence is it even football anymore?  And honestly, while American Football is one of the most profitable sports, and the sport with the largest US television audience, is it the only sport that should have been hauled before Congress (don't they have better things to do????) and had the comissioner grilled about head injuries?  What about hockey?  Lacrosse?  Rugby?  Soccer?  Gymanstics?  How many lesser known sports have the same possibility?

   Flyers Captain, Keith Primeau, had his hockey career ended by head injuries.  The head trainer of the Flyers told him after his fourth concussion that they would never let him back on the ice.  He is still dealing with the effects. 

   US Gold-Medal Soccer team player, Cindy Parlow, retired from soccer, also because of injuries she sustained during the game.  Seems bouncing the ball off your head might not be the best idea.

  Even though I haven't looked up the cases and players, I can guarantee you that Rugby and Lacrosse probably have more than a few of these cases, and gymanstics is a sport that is brutal on all parts of the body, and trust me, gymnasts fall on their heads.  Even they will tell you that.

  Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, CTE, is a traumatic brain injury, and unitl recently was thought to be confined to the sport of boxing.  It's caused by repeated Minor Traumatic Brain Injuries (MTBIs).  Not sure how you can consider any brain injury minor, but it's the difference betweeen headaches and blurry vision, and in a hospital bed hooked up to tubes and wires.  When your head gets hit hard enough, it causes your brain to move around inside your skull, and it does that very quickly.  Over time, these injuries cause breakages in the microtubules that run between different parts of the brain, allowing it to communicate.  The worse the injuries, the more times they occur, tau proteins become defective and no longer stabilize the microtubules.  Communication breaks down and you see things like memory loss, loss of focus, and behavioral instability.
Among the worst cases you see suicide, like Andre Waters (Eagles) and Junior Seau (Chargers).   The last count I looked at, out of the 79 brains that Boston University's CTE study had looked at, 78 had the markers for CTE.  That's pretty damning evidence of a problem.

   Some of the NFL's problem is related to what appears to be their intention to not seriously investigate, and possibly cover up, the connections between head injuries sustained in football and CTE.  Had they been more proactive, there is a real possibility they wouldn't have been skewered to the extent they were, and I believe rightly deserved.  The truth is, if more mothers were aware of this, how many of them would sign that release form for high school football?  If kids stop playing high school football, where would college talent come from?  Without college talent, what happens to the NFL's ready made talent pool?

   Now, as far as I know, almost all the, if not all of the brains sectioned and studied by BU came from players who died before their time, sometimes via suicide.   My feeling is, until they start sectioning and studying the brains of players who have not suffered an unusual or early death, we are still in the dark as to how prevalent the problem is.  An NFL Roster has 53 players (not including the practice squad which is an additional 10 players).  Which means one NFL team during a single season contains 2/3 of the players whose brains have been examined over the last several years.  Those aren't sufficient numbers to get any idea of the scope of the disease.  It is possible that the majority of players don't end up suffering from CTE, and that opens a whole new can of worms as to why some people are susceptible to it, and others aren't.  It will take more than a decade to compile the amount of information needed to figure out the prevalance and whether there is a genetic pre-dispositition.  And I do believe the NFL has taken steps to protect the players as best as they can in a sport where punishing hits aren't just a part of the game, they are practically the rules of the game.  I am in no way clamoring for football to cease.  I think we would lose something that is as American as apple pie and baseball.  I simply think we need to be aware of the dangers.

We need to be aware, because this year, all across the country,  parents won't simply sign releases for high school football.  They will also sign them for pee-wee and middle school football.  And if you think that long-term damage in NFL players is tragic, imagine what can happen to children, taking and delivering the brutal hits of football,  with brains that have not even fully developed.  Imagine those child hockey players getting their heads shoved into the boards, or those child soccer players constantly pounding their heads into a ball.  If you knew your child could suffer long term damage from the sport they play, damage that could lead them to commit suicide at the age of 17 or 21, would you be so willing to sign that release? 

When a player chooses to enter college on a scholarship or the NFL draft, they are at an age where they are capable of understanding the risks of the sport they play.  If they are willing to pay that price, that is entirely up to them.  Eight year olds have no idea, and as parents, our goal is to protect our children.  So before you sign the release, read this again, read more about it from other places, and make an informed decision.  Football, soccer, hockey and many other sports carry an inherent risk.  It's your job to decide if the risk is worth it.