Brain injuries could mark ‘the end of sport’

Risky business: Brain injuries among NFL players are “significantly more common” than average.

A study of NFL players suggests that brain injuries can be easily detected from an early age. More and more sports are coming under fire for the dangers they pose. Will they survive?

American football involves running, head down, as fast as you can, and ramming your helmeted head straight into your opponents.

So it is not surprising, therefore, that the sport has become associated with brain injuries. But recent studies indicate that the problem may be far more serious than previously thought.

Last year a study by the American Academy of Neurology produced a near-conclusive piece of evidence showing that “more than 40% of retired NFL players had signs of traumatic brain injury based on sensitive MRI scans.”

American football players wear helmets, but this does not neutralise the danger, because these injuries occur because of the brain smashing against the bone casing when an impact happens.

The injury that results from this, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is very hard to detect in its early stages. It can only be completely proved at autopsy. But doctors believe they have come up with a very simple, low-cost way of detecting it.

The test tracks changes in conversational language years before symptoms appear. If it works, the linguistic test also would be valuable in assessing the effectiveness of treatments to prevent cognitive damage because of CTE, or to slow its progression.

There are, of course, other sports that are strongly associated with brain injuries. Rugby, in which players are not obliged to wear helmets, is one. There are also risks associated with heading the ball in association football.

But the most obvious example is boxing. For years experts debated whether the Parkinson’s disease that affected Muhammad Ali in later life was caused by constantly getting punched in the head.

Some are now calling for these sports to be discouraged, or even banned. Writing in The Guardian, Dave Bry blames American football’s success and survival on the “primal bloodlust” of the sport’s fans. “We, as a society, should end its existence,” he says.

Will society’s growing prioritisation of physical wellbeing spell the end of these contact sports?

Tackled

“Of course it won’t!” say ardent fans of these sports. We will remain free to undertake potentially dangerous activities with full knowledge of the risks they pose. This applies to riding a motorbike and climbing a tree just as much as playing American football. People will never permit their pastime to be banned because of this nanny-state nonsense.

Do not be so sure, reply others. Bare-knuckle boxing used to be popular and accepted, as did playing cricket without helmets. History shows us that sport is only marching in one direction: towards greater safety for participants. Sport must move away from mindless danger and aggression. People’s lives depend on it.

You Decide

  1. Should any of American football, rugby or boxing be banned?
  2. Is aggression ever a good thing?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to a local politician, explaining whether you think a particular sport should be banned.
  2. Come up with your own non-contact sport and write down its rules.

Some People Say...

“Humans will always want to harm each other.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that doctors are drawing more and more links between highly physical contact sports, like American football and boxing, and brain injuries. All these sports have taken certain measures to prevent injuries, such as heavier punishments for foul play and the wearing of headgear. We now know that doctors believe they have found a new way of detecting these injuries earlier.
What do we not know?
Just how serious these injuries can be, for one logical reason. Unless previous studies have been conducted, it is almost impossible to compare someone’s brain after years of contact sport with what it was like before. We also do not know whether dangerous sports will decline because of medical breakthroughs.

Word Watch

Encephalopathy
A disease in which the functioning of the brain is affected by some agent or condition (such as viral infection or toxins in the blood).
Autopsy
A post-mortem examination to discover the cause of death or the extent of disease.
Heading the ball
A 2016 study found that heading a football fan significantly alter brain function and memory for 24 hours. One of the study’s authors suggested football should be avoided ahead of important events like exams.
Parkinson’s disease
Parkinson’s disease is a condition in which parts of the brain become progressively damaged over many years. There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s and scientists do not yet know why people get the condition.
Bare-knuckle boxing
Despite falling into abeyance, bare-knuckle boxing is still not banned in most countries.