The Concussion Conundrum

(originally published March 17, 2011)

I am deeply disturbed by Dave Duerson’s suicide.  The likelihood that concussions and brain damage are a routine result of ordinary play and practice make me wonder if I can really watch football again.

But I like boxing.

I’m glad that Sidney Crosby is taking his time before coming back onto the ice.  I hope we don’t lose a significant portion of his career as we did with Pat LaFontaine.  I understand that every concussion makes an athlete more vulnerable to further ones, magnifies the damage those later hits can do.

But I don’t want Zdeno Chara hung by his thumbs.

I love sports for a number of reasons; seeing fine skills on display is only one of them.

Physical contests are as natural to our species as they were and are to our evolutionary forebears.  We don’t structure our society around literal displays of dominance, but they still speak to something elemental inside us.  Fortunately, we’re good at sublimating, so we’ve created elaborate structures of rules and procedures in the form of games and sports to provide us with the vicarious pleasure of a visceral jolt.

Rams butt heads; bears claw and wrestle; men get “Jacked Up!” on SportsCenter.

We’re going to be talking about concussions in sports for a long time.  I don’t know exactly how to think about them.

I’m not naïve.  I recognized a long time ago that the only way to enjoy pro football is not to think of the men in the uniforms as people, lest it get too upsetting when so many are injured in the course of a game.  The NFL’s owners took this principle to its logical extreme during the 1987 labor dispute, putting unfamiliar bodies into familiarly logoed shells and hoping the public would buy.  Many did.

We want athletes to take risks.  We talk of them in heroic metaphors when they ignore the risk of injury to make the big play.  We want them to give their all for us, and when their time is done we want the next group to come along and do the same.

It’s been true for a while that most pro football players have trouble walking without pain by the time they hit 50.  But brain injury is different.  The brain is who we are.  We are homo sapiens, “knowing man.”  Without the best workings of our brains, we’re pretty much hairless apes with few natural advantages.

We’re in the very earliest stages of scientific understanding of the brain, and only just beginning to look at the effect of sports on that gelatinous organ.  Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a high-falutin’ term for what was once known as dementia pugilistica, or being punch-drunk.  Repeated impacts to the head trigger a degeneration of the brain, reflected in the buildup of tau proteins in the areas affected.  The damage cannot be observed in the living brain, not yet anyway.  Symptoms include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and eventually, progressive dementia (information courtesy of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy).

Is this something new, or is it a clearer definition of something we’ve seen before and understood on some level?  That happens all the time in sports and in life.   Old-time athletes say that they never had rotator cuff tears; they had sore arms, and they pitched through the pain or found another line of work, usually around the time they turned 30.  Far more people die of cancer now than they did a hundred years ago; a century back, they died of “natural causes.”  Defining the problem is the first step toward finding a solution.

This is not the first time the balance of thrill and danger in sports has been questioned.  Eighteen college football players were killed on the field in 1905; as a result, the rules were changed to reduce the mayhem.  When Ray Chapman was struck and killed by a pitched ball in 1920, major-league baseball banned trick pitches like the spitball and emery ball, and replaced discolored balls with newer, whiter ones more frequently so they’d be easier for batters to see (and avoid) in the late afternoon.  When Duk Koo Kim was killed in the ring in 1982, boxing shortened its championship fights from fifteen rounds to twelve.

In the days of the Original Six, stick-swinging hockey fights were not uncommon, no players wore helmets, and goalies only started wearing masks in the last decade before the 1968 expansion.  Things change.  The NHL’s general managers believe that it is not necessary to impose a complete ban on hits to the head; such a restriction would be difficult to enforce, noted the league vice president and 21-year veteran Brendan Shanahan, because “defenders defend standing up and forwards attack bent over.”

Perhaps some chemical company will develop a sufficiently lightweight, energy-absorbing synthetic padding that could be used in helmets, in gear, and on the walls and boards of stadiums, arenas, and rinks.  A little thoughtful intelligence would come in handy, too: The hit that Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins delivered to Montreal’s Max Pacioretty was magnified exponentially by the standard rink configuration that puts glass boards with a hard right-angled corner in between the two benches.  A curve of glass might make more sense, or seating the off-ice official behind a set-back of glass like that behind the two benches.

Of course, athletes are grownups, and can make decisions about their own safety.  Still, many baseball players refuse to wear helmets engineered to better shield them from the impact of a pitch, because they think they look goofy.  On second thought, forget what I just said about them being grownups.

By learning about the nature of the damage these sports can cause, we can move toward a rational balance of risk and thrill, lessening the unacceptable risks and perhaps forcing a little wisdom on the reluctant.  But we shouldn’t try to eliminate risk altogether.  We enjoy watching great athletes because they do things that we’re unable and maybe unwilling to do.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)