Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, December 03, 2012

The end of football?

Okay, this study, partly paid for by the National Football League, has gotten a lot of attention. The NYT has a more lay-friendly discussion, but the Times coverage, like most media reports on this, is a bit misleading. Let me first unskew it, and then discuss it.

In a nutshell, the researchers sliced up the donated brains of a bunch of football and hockey players, and some combat veterans (many of whom had played football) and found most of them had brain damage that looked kind of like Alzheimer's disease. They were able to correlate what they saw under the microscope with reported symptoms that they maintain define four stages of traumatic encephalopathy.

Now to unskew. This is actually what we call an existential or phenomenological study. It does not give us information about the prevalence  of this sort of damage among football or hockey players. True, this sort of damage was not found in the (fairly small) number of controls they looked at, but these guys' brains were donated in the first place because the families were worried that something was wrong. What this study is telling us more about what can happen to people who suffer repeated blows to the head, but it does not mean 68/85 of football players (or hockey players or combat veterans) actually have this sort of damage.

We still don't know that number, and we don't know a whole lot about the details of what puts people at risk. Maybe some people are more susceptible for reasons of underlying physiology. Maybe particular patterns of injury -- with respect to frequency, age of occurrence, severity and specific physics of the blows, etc. -- are much more dangerous than others. Conceivably, growing awareness among coaches and policies to prevent repeated concussions in a short time have already reduced the risk. We don't know . . .

But. Clearly there is a risk. It seems based on casual observation at least to be quite substantial for professional football players but it also seems to be more than most parents would tolerate even for high school, and certainly for college players. This is quite unpleasant for me to face up to because I am a lifelong pro football fan. They're giving us cheap entertainment and yeah, some of them get fame and fortune but a lot of them only last a couple of years and end up with battered bodies, little in the way of marketable skills, and a few bucks to show for it. Then this disease -- first headaches and depression, then personality changes including angry outbursts, then loss of ability to plan and motivate, then dementia.

You can argue that grown men who take on this risk voluntarily can do what they want. Maybe. But if mothers won't let their sons play, the game will fade away. What other people think doesn't matter. That will be the end of it.


kathy a. said...

you are probably over-estimating the ability of mothers to stop their teen and young adult boys from pounding their heads in a dangerous manner. particularly when so many others think it is a sign of manliness -- and for the few who get to the pros, it pays so well.

i had a hell of a time in the bike helmet wars, and there is a much more clear correlation between head trauma and potential bad outcome in that scenario. (so far as i know, the kids have not taken up motorcycles, though, which is a relief.)

kathy a. said...