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Head Trauma in Sports: The Hits Keep Coming

The new knowledge about damage to brains and self is too great. The cost to the personality of players over the long run is too great. The excuses to not change illusions. We need to change the rules of the footballs to protect the integrity of the game and the integrity of the players.

I am no expert and certainly have no panaceas, but I will suggest a few modest proposals to start the discussions. Remember last year 300,000 concussions were reported in football alone. I will focus upon American football, but we could look lots of areas. For instance, the level of concussions and brain trauma is rising in basketball. The main reason is that the size of players is too big for the size of court. Trying to drive on the old court amid the huge bodies leads to immense shoving, bumping, falling and head injuries. The answer would be simple: increase the size of the court to unclog the middle.

The key to addressing the brain trauma is to remember that it is the repetitive impact. The persistent rattling of the brain generates the impacts, not sudden traumatic impacts. The most immediate response has been to diagnose and get players out of the game when brain trauma occurs, but by then it is too late and does not address the aggregate impact. The changes need to be pervasive.

The first place to start would be practice. A lot of football practice can occur without hitting. In fact data suggests more and more injuries are occurring in practice to rival games. More time is devoted to classrooms. So practices could occur that do not require helmets and limit contact to body not head. You could easily reduce head contact practices by 30 to 40 percent. Players would still internalize the knowledge and skills; they would still develop toughness and still have ample time to maim each other, but it would be more limited. This would especially help in the unregulated world of high school and club sports.

The second place is to get the player out of the game when an injury occurs. The NCAA has proposed changes to mandate much more aggressive testing of head trauma  during football and soccer games. The trainers and doctors are mandated to take a player out who presents trauma.  A new array of diagnostic tools are available to diagnose concussions beyond pushing fingers in front of a player and asking them to count. This means moving away from the ethos that helped kill Lou Gehrig, "rub some dirt on it and get back in the game." Players will play hurt to prove themselves, to be loyal to their team; to live up to an image of being a warrior. The only way to stop this is take the decision away from the player and away from the coach. The coach has too much invested in keeping good players, even injured good players in the game. Besides many good coaches have played injured and expect this from their "warriors." 

Third, internal rule changes are needed. I don't know rules enough, but changes in stances and blocking could minimize the continuous exposure of heads on the linemen who face the most persistent brain pounding. The stance changes would change offenses, but nothing that would kill or destroy the game as we know it. Tweaks on the rules and more aggressive enforcement and penalties of spearing and head to head contact are already involving.

Finally we need to look at technologies and be willing to pay the cost. Ironically the emergence of modern technology has weaponized the human body in football. Wearing Kevlar jackets, huge shoulder pads, helmets with eye shields dehumanize both the player and the opponent. The Halo like uniforms encourage a sense of invincibility among players. Efforts have been made to address heading in soccer but nothing so far reveals real protection. But in football we know better helmets can make a huge difference. Military technology and helmets have made immense strides under the pressure of CTE in Iraq. None of this is incorporated in the 20 year old plastic technology in football helmets. The NFL can put in microphones, but not head protection. Cost stands in the way, just as it did when the NFL and NCAA pretended there was not a brain trauma problem. Things as simple as mandate new mouth guards that focus and diffuse kinetic energy from hits in football can help.

Purists, who don't play and don't risk permanent brain damage or ALS, will scream about diluting the game. They will talk about how we are sissyfying the game and taking away the courage and skill, somehow cheapening the game by limiting the risk. Let them. But they will not be the ones in their forties and fifties with reduced brain capacity and loss of identity. This is serious and it does cut at the heart of the game, a game of mind and organized violence. But the game relies upon the mind first which directs and organizes the violence.

These are the beginnings, but players associations, unions, doctors and the NCAA along with the intrepid reporters who have kept the NFL feet to the fire need to keep up the drum beats. The NFL's answer to all this. Increase the number of games played!

The changes will face four challenges. The biggest will be money and the resistance of pro and college teams to spending the money on new technologies. The second will be the resistance of young gifted players at the prime of their physical and mental ability. They will resist feeling diminished in their warrior hood by practicing less or wearing new "sissy" technologies all of which aim to protect them when they are 50, but hard to figure when they are 22. Third, coaches, many of whom played and made it through without brain damage, will resist for the degradation on playing excellence that limitations on practices and stances or hits will impose on them. They will hate giving up control over keeping talented players in the game. Fourth the networks will silently resist it as will their shills in the booth because they make money off the violence. Networks love the hits and terrifying moments when the stands hush and a player lies motionless, perhaps injured for life. The networks love the hits and knock outs, just as NASCAR  is addicted to crashes and hockey to fights. Networks are addicted to ultra violence, not the beauty and intellectual chess and physical and mental adaptation players demonstrate.

All the opposition should be overridden. The press of the immediate gain, the press of maintaining an image of invincibility to yourself and the press of wanting the best players on the field   will prevent the on field actors from taking the long term view about crippling effects that will occur long after the players have moved on.

We need to change the rules to protect the players from the game. In doing so we will remember these are games of humans, not sacrificial pyres for humans.


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