Dear Sports Fan,
Can some one other than Malcolm Gladwell explain the whole head injury issue? How is Toyota going to fix it and why is no sport but football getting flack?
The bottom line is, science is getting better – so while we probably always knew that people smashing into other people (or objects) wasn’t good for them, we can now point to a specific brain injury that results, and it ain’t pretty: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which basically means that, if you studied some athlete’s brains at 50, you’d think they were 85 year olds suffering from dementia.
Why? There’s a lot of talk about concussions, and that’s the simplest, most straightforward explanation. If you’ve ever had a concussion, you know it’s a miserable experience – you also know that after you get the first one, you’re more likely to get a second one, then a third. If you’re a football player, that’s basically an occupational hazard. What we’re learning, though, is that each subsequent concussion has more serious long term impacts – and can lead to early onset of dementia or other emotional/depression issues. It’s slightly easier to deal with the kinds of massive hits that most frequently cause concussions because, at least in football, these are mostly blindside hits on players who don’t know they’re about to get clobbered and can’t defend themselves. These hits can be phased out of the game by changing the rules. They’re trying to do that now.
What also contributes to this is the so-called “sub-concussive” hits – the thousands of times a player will clash with someone and jostle the brain around in the skull just a little bit. This is one of the things that makes football the center of the brain injury story. In football, offensive and defensive linemen clash every single play with the force of a small automobile accident. Turns out these add up too, especially when you consider these guys have been playing football since they were kids. All of those little hits keep accumulating, and the concern now is that this is an issue that’s even bigger than pro football – that college and maybe even high school players may do some long-term brain damage. That issue is much more difficult to address, because you can’t get rid of that type of contact – it happens every play, all over the field.
Which brings us to Toyota. There is no silver bullet to this problem. The solution will involve a combination of rule changes and improved technology – and acknowledgement that the problem will never be truly solved. People will suffer some amount of brain damage, both because we want to see football and there are people who are willing to take the risk to play it. But the technology involves some really cool research that allows scientists to tell exactly how much force is being delivered with each hit, how the impact is distributed across the body – and, theoretically, how to design equipment to ensure the brain is the recipient of less of that impact. Toyota’s part of that effort because 1. They’ve got an image problem, 2. They’ve got lots of engineers and 3. They’re smart enough to know that nothing makes a foreign company feel less foreign than making America’s favorite game safer and
That last point explains why football is taking the brunt of this. It’s the biggest sport, and sports business, in America today. So while other sports have similar issues – hockey, boxing, Mixed Martial Arts – the research hasn’t been as widespread because those sports aren’t as popular and there aren’t as many kids playing them. It’s only a matter of time though. The science is only going to get better, and I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks that what we learn is going to make us feel better.
The only question is, is there a point at which Americans – the fans and the players – will say the risk is no longer worth taking?
Thanks for the question,
Dean Russell Bell