Thursday, January 24, 2013

Head Injuries and Professional Sports

Over the past couple years a number of current/former football players, boxers and wrestlers have taken their own lives.  As more and more information comes out about the long term brain damage caused by repeated blows to the head, it is clear that this problem is much bigger than anyone wants to admit.  

I listen to Mike and Mike in the Morning religiously.  I love sports radio and their chemistry together is great. But every time one of these tragedies happen Mike Golic, the former professional football player, gives his speech about getting hurt being part of football.  He talks about hurting his shoulder and despite the pain or risk of long term damage, going back in game after game without thinking of his health because he loved football that much.  Herm Edward's knees.  Mike Ditka's hips.  There are always dozens of former professional athletes that come out of the woodwork to say their sport is a dangerous sport and they knew the consequences when they signed on.  This is true, to a point, but these former athletes are in denial because they don't want to admit that the sport they play has the potential to cause much more than sore joints. 

A decade or so Phillip Morris, the tobacco mega-power,  lost a lawsuit because it misinformed the public about the long term dangers of smoking.  Millions of dollars in settlement fees later and the image of smoking in this country is much different than it used to be.  Yes there are still way too many people who smoke but they definitely know the consequences of smoking.  These people are bombarded with public service announcements made by people with holes in their throat, parts of their jaw missing, severe emphysema, or worse, shown the charred organs of people who died painfully from complications of diseases caused by smoking.  There are published studies that have demonstrated that smoking is more addictive and harmful than alcohol and marijuana.  A generation ago you would never see these commercials or know this information.  The number of people who smoke now compared to during my parents' childhood is dramatically different.   Scenes from period shows like Mad Men where everyone smokes, even on airplanes and in hospitals, is the clearest indication of how far we have come as a nation. 

Eventually there will be public service announcements that present sobering facts about the long term effects of repeated blows to the head.  There will be a photo montage of famous athletes who have died tragically as facts about the possible risks flash across the screen.  Professional athletes will sign a waiver listing the risks and will promise not to sue the league if any of those problems arise during or after their career.  That waiver will read something like this:  Multiple blows to the head can cause brain damage.  Even blows to the head that are not dealt with excessive force and/or do not result in a concussion can lead to these problems.  Repeated blows to the body can also result in brain damage because the head is jarred during those blows.  The result of this brain damage can lead to memory loss, paralysis, mood swings, depression and suicidal thoughts and actions.     

Until this kind of information is presented, no one can fault the families of deceased athletes for suing their respective leagues.  When parents sign their kids up for youth football they will sign a similar waiver on their child's behalf.  The equipment used during youth sports will be more protective than that used by college and professional athletes.  Until a person is 18 years old and able to fully understand the risks associated with their sport of choice their parents must face these facts and decide that their child accepts those risks.  I cringe every time the parent of a child paralyzed during youth sports sues their league because my instinct is similar to Mike Golic's: this kid signed up for a violent sport.  He knew the risk and he got hurt.  But in reality I don't know what those parents were told.  If they were told that their child might suffer from a broken leg or get arthritis as an adult and their son ended up a quadriplegic then they are well within their rights to sue the league.  If someone told Mike Golic that one of his two football playing sons were at a great risk for committing suicide at a young age if the proper precautions were not taken I doubt he would be as emphatic in his defense of the lack of disclosure.  

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