Looking forward to the Super-Bowl?

Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh has good news for you if you think football players play with a deck a few cards short (and let’s face it TheSmokingGun would probably be out of work if it wasn’t for sports-person faux pas).

In, what is likely to become a controversial article in today’s New York Times, Dr. Omalu is sited as showing that the November suicide of ex-NFL player Andre Waters is linked to concussions he got during his career.

The neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh and a leading expert in forensic pathology, determined that Mr. Waters’s brain tissue had degenerated into that of a 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s victims. Dr. Omalu said he believed that the damage was either caused or drastically expedited by successive concussions Mr. Waters, 44, had sustained playing football.

In a telephone interview, Dr. Omalu said that brain trauma “is the significant contributory factor” to Mr. Waters’s brain damage, “no matter how you look at it, distort it, bend it. It’s the significant forensic factor given the global scenario.”

He added that although he planned further investigation, the depression that family members recalled Mr. Waters exhibiting in his final years was almost certainly exacerbated, if not caused, by the state of his brain — and that if he had lived, within 10 or 15 years “Andre Waters would have been fully incapacitated.”

This will be bad news for the sports industry because, let’s face it, knowing that you might be basically brain dead at 55 isn’t a real lifetime goal for most people (unless you’re Paula Abdul). This tidbit will line up with all the information about brain damage caused by sports like hockey, boxing, soccer etc. But hey, it’s sport! If you aren’t destroying your joints or obliterating brain cells through hypoxia (oxygen starvation), you’re probably banging your head too much. Since I don’t play sports, my biggest risk is usually listening to George Bush. I often find myself banging my head against something. After six years, I’m probably already hopelessly lost.

The two truly sad things about this story are those effected, cases like Andre Waters; and the fact that the sports lobby will kick into full-speed denial in the next couple of days. I’d keep my eye on Seed’s ScienceBlogs; this right down their alley.

According to the article, Waters was severely depressed before his suicide. He might have seen taking his life as one of the last acts he could manage. I am sure he is not alone; it’s just that other former players simply fade from the limelight.. Mohammed Ali is a pillar of hope despite the damage he sustained at the height of his career. The phrase punch-drunk is no longer often associated with it’s origin, boxing, but the cause is similar to that being discussed here.

The problem isn’t whether some sports cause brain damage, the problem is that too much money is involved to stop playing the dangerous sports. Not only the professional level is important. School sports are designed to encourage team spirit (or break the spirit of the free-willed, depends on the coach I suspect). School sports also generate an amazing amount of income per year; then comes the college stuff, the professional and the semi-professional and amateur stuff.

Band also encourages school spirt. Choir anyone? Chess club? But you’d ban sports because they are unhealthy? It’s not like it’s – um – trans-fats or something!

And let’s face it, how many parents would get fired up to go their kid’s golf match on Friday night? What do you do with the cheerleaders? Would they become golf-clap-leaders and wear baggy clothing? (Highside? No more water-kid; you’d have caddies!) But honestly. I. Don’t. Think. So.

So what will happen? Nothing. Why? Because the danger and the action are too far apart. Humans haven’t evolved to visualise dangers not temporally associated with the cause. (I wanted to use visceral-ise there, but that isn’t a word. It should be!) That’s the problem here (evolution not visceralisation) . It’s the problem with sports. It’s the problem with mass extinction. It’s the problem with global climate change. (It’s either that; or the Land-Lobsters are to blame, but I’m not the NRA.) People don’t have a long term bad feeling. Perhaps a little unease perhaps, but most people won’t get scared enough and therefore won’t care.

They give Super-Bowl parties. For many, the Super-Bowl party today is better than the hangover tomorrow. And football players should worry about reaching fifty? Players be damned.

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