Readers of this blog should know two things by now: (1) I have the highest regard for the people who have done and are doing the serious work in the trenches on sports brain injury research; and (2) While reasonable people can disagree on when the tipping point was reached, we need fewer angels dancing on the heads of pins, in exchange for more concrete steps to prevent chronic traumatic encephalopathy on the front end and, if possible, develop cures at the back end.
For the former, I’m pretty dubious that helmet reform is much of an answer, and I’ll explain why with an analogy. A lot of people have the perception that the end of bareknuckles boxing made the sport less brutal, when the opposite was actually the case. Gloves protect the hands that hit, not the heads that get hit. Relieved of much of the fear that they would break their hands, gloved boxers started punching harder than ever. Mandatory eight counts, three-knockdown rules, limiting the number of rounds, stopping bloodbaths, and other measures did civilize boxing to a degree, but mostly at the level of image. No one who understands how these things work really believes that as a live-and-death matter, boxing is less, rather than more, dangerous than it used to be.
The focus on football helmet safety might very well be a similar public-health trap. The industrial demands of modern football make the helmet as much a weapon as it is a piece of protective gear.
Of course, we can and should do our best with helmet design. We also need changes in rules and in coaching culture. But jeez, the volume of accidents happening with athletes of this size and speed is well beyond acceptable, even if we assume that they’re accidents. The confidence with which some experts project threading the needle here is, intuitively, as absurd as that old Hawaii Five-O episode in which an assassin created a decoy by arranging to have himself shot at long range exactly one-eighth of an inch from his heart.
The reform that needs to get sustained discussion is not the installation of National Football League and World Wrestling Entertainment doctor Joseph Maroon’s ImPACT concussion management software in high school athletic departments. The national conversation we need to be having is about is whether the sport of football should be played at all before age X. I don’t pretend to know what “X” should be; only that the current murmur about the subject is so tossed-off as to be far short of a paradigm shift.
Today’s Chicago Sun-Times has an article about a speaking appearance by Dr. Ann McKee, a doctor of pathology at Boston University who did the Dave Duerson brain study and probably has received fewer mentions here than she deserves. See http://www.suntimes.com/sports/football/5329586-419/doctor-football-must-change-rules-to-protect-players.html.
The headline on the story is “Doctor: Football must change rules to protect players.” Yet the last paragraph of the story has this quote from McKee:
“I don’t think 10-year-olds need to play tackle football. I’ve already told my son he’s got to stop playing.”
I look forward to stories that stop burying the lead and give us headlines like this: “Doctor: Youth football must be banned.”