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On Concussions

This is a little off-topic for Rams Gab and if you aren’t interested in this at all, feel free to jump to the next post, but this is such a huge football story and it is impossible to ignore.  The Rams have had players this season with concussions including Jacob Bell in the preseason and Ron Bartell who is currently dealing with the effects of one.

Research has been published in an article by famed author Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker magazine.  The full article is available here. It is worth reading the whole thing.  Gladwell uses dog fighting as a spot-on comparison, but the important facts are with the concussion discussion.

I have to admit, the article set me a little at odds.  I really didn’t know what to think.  How can we watch and love a sport which pretty much destroys the human beings that play the sport.  We focus a lot on season-ending knee injuries and other injuries that keep players off the field.  Rightfully so because that has the greatest effect on our team on the field.  We as fans do not care as much about what happens to our former heroes once they retire.  We assume they move on to owning car dealerships, lucrative speaking engagements and investing their copious millions made in the NFL.  Sadly, that rosy ideal is far from the truth.

Former NFL players are more at risk for dementia and brain damage than normal, every day working stiffs like us.  Brain scans of former high school, college and NFL football players show brains that should belong to people who are 70 and older.  The reason?  Their heads and brains are in the equivalent of 20-30 impacts the intensity of a small car crash every day.

Much of the attention in the football world, in the past few years, has been on concussions—on diagnosing, managing, and preventing them—and on figuring out how many concussions a player can have before he should call it quits. But a football player’s real issue isn’t simply with repetitive concussive trauma. It is, as the concussion specialist Robert Cantu argues, with repetitive subconcussive trauma. It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too.

In every practice and every game, football players subject their heads to terrible damage that does not often show its effects short term.  But, they always show their effects over the long term of the former players life.

“There is something wrong with this group as a cohort,” Omalu says. “They forget things. They have slurred speech. I have had an N.F.L. player come up to me at a funeral and tell me he can’t find his way home.

As fans, it is hard for us to think about the destruction we are watching and what it doing to all the players on the field long term, especially the linemen. We can not see the damage like a twisted ankle or dislocated shoulder.  The effects were impossible to measure until now and there is limited data.  Football shortens players lifespans and offers a retirement from football full of early onset dementia and other mental issue for former players.

I’ll end this post with this chilling and well written (way better than I possibly could) recap on the problem from Mr. Gladwell and a few unanswered questions.  Gladwell checks in with former St. Louis Ram Kyle Turley for this article.

Turley says he was once in the training room after a game with a young linebacker who had suffered a vicious hit on a kickoff return. “We were in the cold tub, which is, like, forty-five degrees, and he starts passing out. In the cold tub. I don’t know anyone who has ever passed out in the cold tub. That’s supposed to wake you up. And I’m, like, slapping his face. ‘Richie! Wake up!’ He said, ‘What, what? I’m cool.’ I said, ‘You’ve got a concussion. You have to go to the hospital.’ He said, ‘You know, man, I’m fine.’ ” He wasn’t fine, though. That moment in the cold tub represented a betrayal of trust. He had taken the hit on behalf of his team. He was then left to pass out in the cold tub, and to deal—ten and twenty years down the road—with the consequences. No amount of money or assurances about risk freely assumed can change the fact that, in this moment, an essential bond had been broken. What football must confront, in the end, is not just the problem of injuries or scientific findings. It is the fact that there is something profoundly awry in the relationship between the players and the game.

Can we continue to root for men who destroy themselves for our amusement every week?  (This is Gladwell’s parallel to dog fighting.)  Is football any different than boxing, or the gladiatorial events of ancient Rome?  Should we feel any remorse as fans?  Or should we continue to cheer for the players on the field and ignore the players who have been permanently damaged by the game?

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