The public debate about football and its effects on cognitive health — that is to say, how all those years of head trauma can really screw you up, years later — is heating up even more. PBS ran the special “League of Denial” about the NFL’s cover-up of the brain-damaging effects of their brand of football, and now Tony Dorsett and several other former pro players have been diagnosed with early signs of CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Bleacher Report has a good write-up on it here, and ESPN has their own, which I read yesterday.
I was really encouraged to read that there’s actually a way to detect CTE in living people. Up to recently, the word was that it can only be definitively identified in the brains of dead folks. But apparently now UCLA has a fix for that. So, that’s encouraging.
But it’s never good when anyone has CTE, and both Joe DeLamielleure and Leonard Marshall were also diagnosed, but Tony Dorsett…? That was a pretty emotional discovery for me. He was one of the players who got me really excited about the game when I was a kid. I always loved football, but there was something about his performance that was even more compelling — and it almost made me a Cowboys fan, for a while. Almost.
The article over at Bleacher Report has a writeup and includes the full gamut of responses from readers — everything from “the players knew the risks, and they did it anyway,” or “they just want to milk the system” to “they’re upset because they’re not in the limelight anymore and they’re just a bunch of cry-babies looking for attention,” to “you’re an idiot – the NFL covered this up for 15 years,” to well-informed responses based on science, to flat-out denial that anyone other than linemen could sustain repeated head trauma. And here and there are counter-arguments to refute ignorance-based “rationale.”
There’s a lot of back-and-forth talk, some more useful than others, but the most important thing is, people are talking about it, and more awareness is building around the whole issue. It would be nice if folks could share information and keep an open mind without calling names, but this is the internet, after all. I do find it hopeful that people are quoting actual scientifically based facts. And what I find most interesting is how many readers are reporting that parents are not letting their kids play football.
One of the questions that comes to my mind is whether all the talk might be doing more harm than good. There’s a lot of knee-jerk reaction going on, and brain injury is such an emotionally loaded subject which hits so close to each of us, that a lot of people just stop listening as soon as they hear “brain injury”. It’s not that they don’t want to learn or understand — we’re wired to shut down our higher reasoning, when we feel threatened at a deep level, and brain injury hits a lot of us in our most vulnerable spot.
A broken bone you can see and set and watch heal on the x-rays. A broken nose you can push back into place, tape up, and wait to get better. But a broken brain? It’s invisible. It’s mysterious. You can’t even see the real issues on imaging results — at least, not those that are widely available at a reasonable cost. And you don’t have a clear-cut route to recovery. Plus, we have this really bizarre expectation (based, I’m sure on decades of science that told us it’s so) that you only have so many brain cells, that once you damage the brain, you’re done, and there’s no turning back.
Only in the past years has science amended its views — and it’s done so silently, without so much as a hint of an apology for training us all to give up on ourselves.
What’s more, I think we’re not helped by the sensationalistic (if true) focus that’s being brought to CTE and the long-term effects of repeat head trauma. All the press focusing in detail on the horrible things that happen to you after head trauma might be cementing the public perception that once you’re brain-injured, that’s it. Tony Dorsett says he’s being proactive and is going to fight this and live his life to the fullest. But given how little is generally known in the public about brain injury in general, who knows how seriously anyone is taking this? I read one article where the writer referred to his condition as his “demise” — a freudian slip, if ever I heard one.
Frankly, I’d be surprised if anyone gave him the time of day after his revelation. Yes, he is Tony Dorsett — that is, he was. Once people find out that you’ve got “brain issues,” they have a way of distancing themselves from you. It’s something they don’t want to think about. They can’t help but imagine what it would be like for them — and it scares the bejesus out of them. So, they choose not to talk about it. They’d much rather talk to Sidney Crosby, who apparently has no more head/neck trauma issues to speak of.
From personal experience, I can tell you, repeat head trauma — even mild traumatic brain injuries — can do a number on you. It can turn your emotions upside-down, trash your impulse-control, wreck your judgment, saddle you with a bunch of unpredictable and seemingly insurmountable physical sensitivities, put you in a state of constant headache and general pain… in the process destroying your relationships, costing you your job, turning your financial decision-making inside-out, and generally doing the same thing to your life that a frat party does to a frat house. And it can all happen without you ever intending it to — and never actually wanting it to.
Now, I know a lot of folks are going to say it’s a character issue, or it’s an issue of self-control or what-not. It’s not about character. It’s about how the brain works, and how our lives are ordered as a result. And when you’re brain-injured (and unaware that you’re dealing with brain injury), the very thing that’s supposed to keep everything in order is what’s the problem.
And because it’s your brain that’s impacted, you can never even realize till it’s way late in the game — for some, too late.
The thing is — if we can all get past the terribleness of it, please — there is a way out. Brain injury, even CTE, doesn’t need to be the end. The brain is an incredibly “plastic” organism that by nature re-routes its wiring and recruits other parts to take on functionality that the original parts may have lost. There have been cases of people with advanced brain degeneration never ever showing any signs of that condition — the book Aging with Grace talks about that. And you can’t tell me that all the people who have lived full lives to a ripe old age have never had any organic brain issues. The brain is a mysterious and amazing organism. Our limited understanding doesn’t change its infinite possibilities.
If there’s one thing that I hope comes out of all this — even if it’s long-term — it’s the knowledge and experience that recovery from brain injury is possible. It is NOT a death sentence. I hope someone out there gets a clue — and publishes widely on it — about how possible (even probable) it is that a person can restore quality to their life and continue to live with meaning and purpose and a sense of usefulness, even after repeat head traumas.
Making a huge issue out of football being a cause of a brain-wasting condition is only part of the story. Saying that repeat concussions is a recipe for madness and early-onset brain degeneration is not the whole truth.And focusing only on the awfulness (to raise awareness and funding) leaves me with the feeling that this terribleness is permanent and irreversible. Logically I know it’s not 100% accurate, but part of me fears might be.
Tony Dorsett is not dead. Not yet, anyway. Who knows what will take him out in the end? He says he’s got issues. He says it’s wrecking his life. He says he’s considered suicide. And he says he’s being proactive and is going to fight this thing. There is still a whole lot we don’t know about the brain, CTE, tau, and how we might be able to clear the junk out of the brain.
Personally, my money’s on exercise, sleep, a positive attitude, staying active both mentally and physically, keeping connected to a community, and solid nutrition without a ton of artificial crap crammed in between the real ingredients. But that’s just me.
Whatever other folks may choose, I hope they do choose it, and I hope they don’t give up just because things look a little grim, right now. Things always look grim, before you have a chance to do something about them. But once you get going… you never know where it’s going to take you.
In any case, the day is waiting. I have a lot that I want to accomplish today — this whole weekend, in fact. So, speaking of staying active, it’s time for a morning walk before I get into the rest of my day. That should get things moving…