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Brain Injury: Touchdown Concussion

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For millions of contact sports fans, today is the ultimate sporting event and party. But not for Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of The Tipping Point and Blink, and staff writer with The New Yorker magazine. He likens football to a blood sport and is boycotting the Superbowl game this year. He feels it is a matter of morality that the fans are complicit in the violence, namely violence that leads to brain injury. It is now a known fact that suicides of so many tough guys have been linked to numerous blows to the head.

Head injuries are talked about constantly, particularly this Superbowl Sunday. And it is clearly evident, after too many deaths and suicides, that concussion and traumatic brain injury (TB1) poses a serious danger for players and the league.

In an interview today with Michael Enright of the CBC radio, Gladwell said that players are treated like fighting dogs, with no regard for their current and future health. And Enright posed the question: Are sports fans morally culpable in athletes’ lives being ruined or cut short?

The NFL certainly can’t afford any more injuries. Last year a class action lawsuit was filed against the league by thousands of former players, seeking damages for the brain injuries they incurred on the job, i.e., on the playing field. How can we forget that Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend, drove to the stadium, said thanks to his coach, and then killed himself? Or that Junior Seau killed himself with a gunshot to the chest because he wanted his brain to be studied for proof that his injuries sustained as a player led to mental illness and consequently drove him to suicide? And to top it off, 2012 was the year of the Bounty Scandal: when the New Orleans Saints players were paid bonuses for deliberately injuring their opponents.

Gladwell is a huge football fan but he now likens football players to pitbulls fighting to the death for their owners. Young players get hit on the head over and over again and pretend they are OK. Brain injuries, for too long, were considered on the hurt side, not the injured side. “ If I see stars and seem fuzzy, I will continue playing,” he said. “But if I tear a muscle or break a bone, I’m out of the game.” He explained that a concussion is a severe blow to the head but that isn’t the entire problem. Less severe hits (subconcussions), over and over again, might be the problem. In one game a player could sustain 20-30 hits. But one player could be live to a ripe old age, smart as a whip. Another player could suffer dementia at the age of 35. In other words, individuals have different responses to these impacts.

Research now indicates that so many knocks to the head can profoundly damage even the toughest guys and irrevocably damage their brains. These brain injuries can lead to mental illness, early-onset dementia, violence and suicide.

In a recent study published in the neurology journal Brain, researchers found a connection between brain disease and repeated concussions or head trauma. They examined 85 donated brains, including many from former football players, wrestlers, hockey players, and boxers, and discovered that nearly 80 percent of people who experienced repetitive hits to the head showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CET), an Alzheimer’s-like condition that results in the slow destruction of brain cells. According to the journal, symptoms of CET come in four stages: first, headaches and attention loss; second, depression, anger or short-term memory impairment; third, cognitive impairment; and fourth, dementia and sometimes aggression.

In other words, it is a complete melt-down, which sounds all too familiar. Let the game begin, but cool it with blows to the head - please.


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