For Whom The Death Knell Tolls: Head Contact Sports

In my last post, I started on the subject of head contact induced CNS [central nervous system damage], CTE, dementia, etc. Today I saw and read an article from the Guardian that so upset me that I had to write this follow-up piece. And this one will be pure American Heresy. As the old pre-Metallica genre band of Detroit, “MC5,” said in their one hit, I am going to in this post, “Kick Out The Jams.” I have been putting this post off for a very long time, paradoxically, even before I started this blog, this topic has been boiling in my scientific mind with growing anger and apprehension. Pro football, boxing, hockey and many of the other head contact [read: traumatizing] sports must be given up in this country someday.

I have been putting this post off for a very long time, paradoxically, even before I started this blog.Tthis topic has been boiling in my scientific mind with growing anger and apprehension for years.. Pro football, boxing, hockey and many of the other head contact [read: traumatizing] sports must be given up in this country someday.

The article entitled, “It’s been devastating’: former NFL players count the cost of concussion,” published in The Guardian, really hit home and set off this rant/post.

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Addiction to Football and Denial about Concussions and “Sports Induced Dementia”

"Concussion" New York Premiere - Outside Arrivals

[Pictured above: Dr. Bennet Omala, neuropathologist of Nigera, from TIME magazine, photo by Jim Spellman of Getty Images]

{Dislcaimer: “Sports Head Injury Induced Dementia” is as far as I know…my own term]

Two days from now the documentary-movie Concussion starring Will Smith based on the ever worsening story of America’s addiction to football and the unceasing drumbeat of the incredibly high risk and now perhaps the predictable high risk of a new form of dementia, about the research and quest of Dr. Bennett Omalu, the Nigerian neuropathologist pictured above [from the current issue of TIME magazine] will be shown in theaters.

TIME’s current issue, features the article: “Concussion Expert: Over 90% of NFL Players Have Brain Disease,” perhaps not so coincidentally, at this time of America’s gluttonous feast of football bowl games, the New Year’s Day all day sports gorge, is highlighting this issue and reminding us all of the risks involved in head contact sports. It goes way beyond football though. The worst example sport in my still undemented mind in spite of being in my sixties, is boxing. One can only remember the sad public dementia of many a prize fighter reduced to being bouncers and childlike ‘greeters’ at Las Vegas casinos and night clubs in the 1950’s and 1960’s when the Mob was king of Vegas and many a boxer owed their early successes to the backing of the Mob who ran boxing for decades. Think of Joe Louis and Muhammed Ali, the former truly demented, and the latter, Ali who has suffered so sadly from extreme debilitation from Parkinson’s disease evident so poignantly when he lit the Olympic torch years ago. The phrase “punch drunk” like so many sayings in our language exists for a reason and now modern neurological medical science has verified incontrovertibly the folk wisdom in that phrase used so much with thought that means brain damage.

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Don’t Let Your Kids Grow Up to be Cowboys, Or Play Football

Part of the above title is from the decades old popular tune by the late great Waylon Jennings, “Don’t Let Your Sons Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” which had a message its all own about the rough life and that reality was not as romantic as portrayed in the American myth of the cowboy and perhaps about his own life as well as a hard living, hard drinking country entertainer. I always wondered growing up what effect his not getting on the plane in the 1950’s with “The Big Bopper” and the equally great late Buddy Holly, that crashed and killed them, had on Waylon Jennings, the fact he accidentally avoided death. I thought even as a kid his music had a certain wistful, depressive undertone to it, rivaled only by a few other such singers and lyricists. My apologies to his spirit for commandeering his song title partly for this piece.

Since the death by shotgun blast aimed intentionally at his chest, by Dave Duerson over a decade ago, a former lineman for the St. Louis Cardinals (back then), there has been much controversy over the effect of head bashing and cranial trauma on football players, most of it focusing on the effects by the time one has reached the professional ranks as a young and pre-middle aged adult in one’s late 30’s when most pro footballers retire. Lineman, as I understand it, tend to play longer and have longer careers than running backs and maybe pass receivers who run, are more mobile in the specialty positions and far more likely to suffer “career ending” knee injuries much frequently earlier in their careers.

Dave Duerson knew something was badly wrong with him mentally and likely cognitively. He was reported to have complained of headaches, depressions that he could not shake, memory problems, awareness that his intellect was failing him, mood changes, i.e., anger outbursts that he could explain or control, but most of all apparently a growing persistent, unshakeable preoccupation with suicide. He apparently revealed almost none of this to close friends, associates, family, and I like everyone else have no idea whether he revealed these self witnessed changes to his physicians. In any case, he stunned the sports world when he committed suicide, left an explanatory note that he mandated his brain be donated to neurological science and studied for what he felt was wrong with him. It was immediately clear that his placement of the barrel of the shotgun he used to kill himself was intentionally placed on his chest to preserve his skull and brain for scientific study. His courageous, if one can use that term as I know there are many opposing viewpoints about the act of committing suicide itself, but sad death, put the football world on notice that nothing had before, that something¬†bad was going on with head injuries and possible or likely later in life serious repercussions like dementia and mental changes. The NFL had had by that time an ongoing study following players after retirement and had an investigational neurologist heading up the long term follow up study. But it gradually became enmeshed in horrendously vitriolic controversy as being inadequate, having conflicts of interest with the head of the study being paid and retained by the NFL and perhaps not open to enough peer review, scientific scrutiny. The NFL maintained relative silence on the issue but the uproar grew and grew especially in the neurologic scientific, brain research communities and the head of the program resigned or was fired (who knows how these work behind closed PR doors, especially when they say the standard exit euphemism of “He wanted to spend more time with his family”).THe study commissioned was thoroughly revamped, restocked with different personnel from many disciplines and made independent of the NFL. The sports media speculated on the supposed reactions of the team owners’ whose buckets of gold could potentially be threatened etc.

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