Is Brain Damage an Inevitable Result of Playing Football?
This headline from August 7 edition of LiveScience asks the question as the result of a recent report that 110 of 111 brains studied from professional football players showed brain injury typical of that seen with repeated concussions. The interests wanting to deny this finding are wide and diverse. Owners don’t want to hear it, and fans want to watch the game.
There are questions about how early the damage begins. Is it as early as Pop Warner? Is it a hazard for high school or NCAA football? The impression is that the injury is seen as a result of the “big hit”. If you have watched any football you know that hit. It comes as players are blind-sided in a tackle, when a pass receiver gets hit from two different directions as he comes to the ground with the ball. Fans love it. It appears to be deadly.
This news, to quote a Kentucky congresswoman concerning another matter is “as welcome as a breeze off an out-house.” The question is can it be avoided and how?
Everyone wants to keep the “big hit” but cushion the player. Maybe that isn’t possible. I wonder whether less cushioning is the answer.
I first began downhill skiing in my late 30s. As I was growing up the big fear in skiing was the boot top fracture. Ski boots are like short leg casts. They are designed so that your knee is always flexed slightly and your ankle is protected. By the time I came along the breakaway binding had been invented. As you began to fall the torque from the long ski popped the binding instead of your tibia and fibula.
I remember my first big fall on the “bunny slope”. The bindings did just what they were intended to do. Nothing was injured but my pride. So, I became daring. (Actually, I’ve always been daring which has made life exhillerating at times and nearly gotten me killed at others.)
I took the family skiing for the next five years by which time the kids were too busy with other things to want to go, and the expense for a trip had become prohibitive. During those five years I became a pretty good skier and have some great memories – like riding to the top of the mountain, skiing to the edge and then leaping twenty feet through the air down the slope into 18 inch deep powder, and off down the slope with my older daughter, her friend, and her friend’s dad.
I fell once – it is hard to keep your tips up in deep powder – and wasn’t hurt at all. It was like falling into a pillow.
So, how does this relate to football?
The way it relates is that I almost pulled a “Sonny Bono”. My daughters wanted to take a shortcut through the woods in un packed show. They were more agile than I, used shorter skies, and didn’t weigh as much. I insisted on going first to make sure it was safe, caught my tip going between two trees, which resulted in me straddling the tree, and suffered a concussion. My goggles and glasses were smashed, and when I came to I was surrounded by my daughters and a few adults.
The lack of danger of a broken leg caused me to do something that resulted in what could have been a much worse injury.
At one time football was played with a leather helmet and no pads. It was more like Rugby. Players got roughed up, skinned up, had their teeth knocked out, but the limitations in “armor” kept two 400 pound locomotive from meeting in a head-on collision. Too, there were few players in the 3-400 pound class. Players were smaller and collisions less spectacular.
Fans though love the spectacular hits. They may worry that their players concussion will keep him out of the rest of the game, but don’t usually think about long term effects. Football players are like gladiators. Serious injury or death is regarded as the price of fame.
Also, fans treat the game as though it was war; our army against your army. They are much like – and often are - those who claim to love the military, but then refuse to pay soldiers a decent salary, help them transition to civilian life, or pay for healthcare after their discharge. Professional athletes get a nice retirement, but their health cannot be restored if they have traumatic brain injury.
Some of you may have watched Australian Rules football. It is funny to watch as an outsider, mainly due to the actions of the referees.
Note the lack of padding and helmets for the players.
Australian Rules football reports that while almost all of the injuries related to the sport are to the lower leg in the form of sprains, torn ligaments and fractures, brain injury related to repeated concussions is being studied. Studies at multiple levels of play show that the number and severity of injuries increase as the player moves through various levels of expertise in clubs, with the highest level being among Elite (professional) players.
So what about the question of Rugby vs. Football as far as injuries go?
Ben Heather, a New Zealand journalist, reported:
“About 1,200 people suffer head injuries while playing rugby each year.
About two-thirds of these injuries are either concussion or brain injuries.
The figures do not account for ongoing health problems which cannot be directly linked to rugby injuries.”
The annual cost of care for Rugby related injuries in New Zealand is estimated to be $50 million.
It doesn’t sound like imitating Rugby is the answer.
Few sports are without contact. Basketball has contact, but that is not the intent of the game. The same is true of soccer. In football and rugby it is part and parcel of the game.
I have seen contact in billiards, but it was usually following a lot of drinking and involved the use of a pool cue. It is not what the game is about.