Monday, June 28, 2010

Why Head Contact is an Issue

Much has been made of sports leagues trying to remove hits to the head from their respective games in recent years.

Many old-school fans are perplexed by the movement. After all, all these guys who played back in the day had less protection on their heads, and yet we didn't hear horror stories about brain damage and the like.

Of course, those fans don't get it. We didn't hear the stories because we didn't know there was any correlation. Doctors didn't know that football could cause so many health problems after the fact.

The case of Mike Webster started people down this path, and others have sadly followed.

(Most notably, pro wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife and son, then took his own life, but was found to be extremely disturbed.)

Last December, the Bengals lost wide receiver Chris Henry in a tragic accident involving his fiance and a domestic dispute turned really bad. After his passing, his mother gave the Brain Injury Research Institute permission to examine Henry. The results were telling.

Chris Henry, the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver who died in a traffic accident last year, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) -- a form of degenerative brain damage caused by multiple hits to the head -- at the time of his death, according to scientists at the Brain Injury Research Institute, a research center affiliated with West Virginia University.

"We would have been very happy if the results had been negative, but multiple areas of Chris Henry's brain showed CTE," said Julian Bailes, Director of BIRI and chairman of neurosurgery at West Virginia. Bailes and his colleagues plan to present results of their forensic examination at a news conference Monday afternoon.

Researchers have now discovered CTE in the brains of more than 50 deceased former athletes, including more than a dozen NFL and college players, pro wrestler Chris Benoit and NHL player Reggie Fleming.

Repeated blows to the head are the only known cause of CTE, researchers say. Concussive hits can trigger a buildup of toxic tau protein within the brain, which in turn can create damaging tangles and threads in the neural fibers that connect brain tissue. Victims can lose control of their impulses, suffer depression and memory loss, and ultimately develop dementia.

While the links between CTE and behavior are still being studied, many of the former athletes diagnosed with this form of brain damage died under unusual circumstances. Ex-Steeler Justin Strzelczyk, for example, was killed in 2004 after experiencing hallucinations, leading police on a high-speed chase for 40 miles before driving his car into a tanker truck. In 2007, Benoit strangled his wife and 7-year-old son, then put Bibles next to their bodies and hanged himself. Tom McHale, a guard for three NFL teams remembered by teammates as smart and dependable, sank into depression and died of a multiple-drug overdose in 2008.

As PFT notes, we don't know when or how Henry suffered that damage. As Dr. Bailes said, this injury has been observed in longtime NFL players, but not in younger guys like Henry.

But that uncertainty is part of why sports leagues are under so much pressure. Until more is known about these injuries and how they can be prevented, the best way to keep them from happening is to tightly legislate contact to the head as much as humanly possible. It might not be ideal for some fans, but the health and well-being of thousands of athletes in all facets of sports and entertainment is on the line.

Reality is that players are bigger, faster, stronger, and more well-coached than they ever were before. The games are different, with big hits a big part of marketing, along with fixtures on shows like SportsCenter, which often are unfairly blamed for how sports have changed. We have to find a way to balance the thirst fans have for contact with the need to keep players safe so they can live long, productive lives.

Doctors will keep working on trying to figure out the human brain, but they have a long way to go.

In the realm of player safety, so does virtually everybody. Fans need to be patient while the work is done.

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