Thursday 20 March 2014

CSE contact sport encephalopathy

Here on The Blob, and often in my Sports Science classes at The Institute, I've asserted that sofas were designed to fit my capacious backside. Call me Dr Pangloss. I know I should get up and do more exercise, but I'm much more likely to chop wood, or turn the compost-heap or shovel out a drain than squeeze into shorts and a coloured shirt and run about on the grass with a score of other blokes.  Team sports are a Good Thing because cameraderie and co-operation are part of the human condition which rarely get an excuse for an outing in the dog-eat-dog me-me-me society which is Western Capitalism.  But you don't want to take them too seriously and especially you don't want to take them too competitively.  It really does  "matter not that you won or lost - But HOW you played the Game", which will sound very old fashioned to many of today's millionaire sports-people.  And will sound extremely subversive to those who just make money out of sport rather than participating.  The way games are played in the WEA and more generally in Europe can be compared with their American equivalents in the amount of kit required to participate.  Cricketers and hurlers catch the small, hard, speeding ball with their bare hands, yankee-dogs at baseball seem to need an enormous leather prosthesis.  Rugger-buggers go out onto the field dressed in cotton and lycra, while NFL boys must spend as much time dressing for the match as Henry V did preparing for Agincourt. It will sounded terribly chauvinist but in the European version of these absurd sports you are more likely to be pitting yourself against the best that you can do, while the US embraces a winner-takes-all ethos that I have had many occasions to deprecate.

A tuthree days ago, I had an outing to the pub to watch Ireland triumph in an international sports competition.  I do this rarely but reckon it's better for you to watch sport with other people than alone on your sofa with your six-pack; which in your case and mine almost certainly refers to half-a-dozen tinnies rather than a finely developed set of abs.  In the course of that match, there were a lot of  minor injuries and one case where a star player from the Irish team was concussed and stretchered off the field.  He appeared to be in good health later that evening but you don't want to have that happen to you too often.

If it does happen too often Sexton could finish up like Dave Duerson a star player in the American National Football League who shot himself in the chest three years ago.  In the chest because he wanted his brain preserved for science so that a diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) could be determined.  In due course, his autopsied brain was found to have elevated levels of tau-protein and physical changes in the sulci, which might explain his determination to finish himself off. Ann McKee, a neurologist at my alma mater Boston University,  is accumulating rows (N>250) of brains in bottles to document the trauma.  The ludicrous obsession with statistics that permeates American (and increasingly European) sport is now being put to scientific use because each pickled brain has associated data on the number of, say, sackings (link only suitable for a baying crowd at the Colosseum c. 178AD) that it accumulated while it was still working.

At the end of August last year, the NFL agreed to cough up $763,000,000 to settle a huge backlog of suits against it from former players who now feel they weren't sufficiently appraised of the negative consequences of playing football when they were young-and-foolish.  That sounds like a HUGE amount of money, almost exactly equivalent pro rata to the $200,000 each Erin Brockovich's lawyers secured for herself and her neighbours when another MegaCorp contaminated the ground-water with chromium VI.  The NFL, on the other hand, has a GNP greater than several small countries, so they can afford to pay out such sums to protect their investment from reputational damage.  They also took $1million out of petty-cash to support Ann McKee's research at BU.

I think it's a little disingenuous to blame the NFL for the damage to the brains of their young gladiators.  Do you think that knowing the odds of getting drooly-disabled in thirty years time would stop many young men from having the time of the alpha-male lives now?  I worked for years in Ireland on short-term contracts in science where there was no legal obligation for employers to contribute to my pension; so they didn't. I wasn't young, I wasn't stupid, I wanted to participate in that work at that time and so had to do so under those conditions.  It would be invidious for me to now blame TCD and UCD for abusing me then and insist on full compo when I slip into retirement a few years from now. Or would it ? . . . hmmmmm, must get lawyer.

MAIS revenons nous a notre titre: it is now surfacing that rugby and soccer players are also liable to head-trauma because a few cases of CTE have been documented in former players. Whom to sue?  The Royal Bank of Scotland RBS who sponsor the Six Nations? They by definition have loadsa money. Or the International Rugby Board IRB who surely have a duty of care for those who play on their watch?  In the same way as I can see boxing being banned as not suitable for civilised society, I can see support for a new rule in soccer that puts head-the-ball into the dustbin of history, although young physicist Caroline Puskas suggests that a football has only about 20% of the damaging oomph as a punch to the head.

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