Getting Smashed in the Head is Not Good For You

I have always loved watching football. I pull over to the side of the road and watch high school teams scrimmaging. But I’m not sure I will continue to enjoy watching football much longer, knowing the damage that is being done to the players.

After reading “Offensive Play” by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, October 19, 2009, I wouldn’t let my kid play football. The serious lifetime damage of this game is equivalent to the damage inflicted by boxing, and for some it’s even worse.

We know that boxers suffer at least a 20% rate of dementia, added on to the normal risk of Alzheimer’s.

The National Football League is studying hard hits to the head, as well they should, but it turns out every day-to-day hit does serious damage. Soccer players suffer serious damage when they head the ball.

In a typical drive down the field, NFL linemen suffer dozens of blows to the head, and they all add up. It’s not just the severe ones.

“I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I’d hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn’t come uncrossed for a full series of plays,” said a former NFL lineman. “You are out there trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them.”

Gladwell interviews Ann McKee from the VA hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, who has studied brains that have been donated by boxers and football players, who has identified a type of dementia completely unrelated to Alzheimer’s that can be found in boxers, of course, but also in football players.

Not just NFL linemen either. It shows up in people who played a little football in college. Turns out it’s really bad for your brain to be bashed about, even in a routine football practice.

Remember the asbestos threat? Was that discovered by the government? No it was not. It was discovered by The New Yorker. The asbestos companies didn’t seem to notice that they weren’t paying any pensions because every single worker was dying of asbestosis. It took a literary magazine to bring out the truth.

But here’s the good news for football fans: Dr. McKee’s research relies on brain donations, so the data is accumulating very slowly. It will probably be years before we understand how deadly this game is. So, in the meantime, enjoy the playoffs!

Don’t read this article in the NY Times: Dementia Risk Seen in Players in N.F.L. Study.