Pennington jerseyEvidence is accumulating that football, at least at the professional level, is causing dementia and other cognitive problems among retired players.

"..the Michigan researchers conducted a phone survey in late 2008 in which 1,063 retired players — those who participated from an original random list of 1,625 — were asked questions on a variety of health topics. Players had to have played at least three or four seasons to qualify. Questions were derived from the standard National Health Interview Survey so that rates could be compared with those previously collected from the general population, the report said.

"The Michigan researchers found that 6.1 percent of players age 50 and above reported that they had received a dementia-related diagnosis, five times higher than the cited national average of 1.2 percent. Men age 30 through 49, for whom the national average is 0.1 percent, showed a rate of 1.9 percent, or 19 times that of the general population.

"The paper itself questioned the reliability of using phone surveys to assess prevalence rates of diagnosed dementia, as did several experts in telephone interviews. For example, some of those affected might not be reachable; then again, N.F.L. players may have greater access to doctors to make the diagnosis, and so on."

The study already seems compelling. There could be some promising ways to test the idea further and learn more, such as measuring the dependence of cognitive problems on:

– years played
– self-reported number of diagnosed concussions over football career
– height and weight at retirement
– "safety" of position played, as rated by some independent source.
(e.g. punter and kicker would probably be rated safest)

Obviously this may cause some worries among high school and college players. One can hope that the problems don't really kick in until the play reaches the weight and speed level of the NFL.

Victor Niederhoffer generalizes:

HeaderThe study the Professor alluded to reinforces my long held belief that soccer is an evil sport, and the body is not meant to be banged up, especially the head, and that this causes early death and dementia. In addition to the heading shot, which must be involved on at least a third of all goals, I find soccer objectionable for my kids because kids with no other means of recreation or occupation play it from the day they are born, and by the time they compete with Americans who have to go to school and develop other interests, they are much too good for the Americans to compete against . Also, I hate that you can't play it without great effort after you graduate from college so it's not a life long source of recreation. My father Artie always said, whatever you do, don't let your kids play football. And I would add soccer and boxing.

Jordan Neuman opines:

I always thought that the rise of soccer in the suburbs over the last generation was just an extension of liberal politics because everybody can play. If someone has no talent they just stick him on defense. (I am speaking of school kids, obviously at higher levels of play this does not apply.)

On the other hand when my kid is pitching, he is on the stage. When he is throwing good strikes it is beautiful. When he gets lit up you have to tip your hat to the hitter (also on his personal stage). I always thought all those volumes expended on "America is baseball" were wasted, and most are. But there is a reason that baseball is a uniquely American game.

Ryan Carlson digresses to his favorite sport:

One of the many reasons why I find hockey to be such an honorable sport is that cheapshots and any unsportsmanlike conduct is dealt with through "the code" that such behavior has to be answered through fistfights. The code serves as a check and balance for problems to be addressed quickly and so liberties aren't taken when the ref is looking the other way. An entertaining book for those interested is The Code: The Unwritten Rules Of Fighting And Retaliation In The NHL

Scott Brooks continues:

GassoffHaving grown up a big St. Louis Blues fan and overall general hockey fan, I watched more than my fair share of hockey. We had season tickets to the Blues when I was growing up in the 1970s. My dad ate at a restaurant by his work that was frequently attended by Blues players. Dad was on first name basis with such greats as the Plager Brothers, Garry Unger, Bob Gassoff, Noel Picard, Chuck Lefley and many others.

Watching the dynamics of hockey growing up, it was clear that every team needed at least one good enforcer. This was the guy that would go out and beat up whoever on the the other team "breached protocol". If someone smashed into the Garry Unger (the Blues main scorer back in his day), he'd have to deal with one of the Plager Brother or (even worse for him), Bob Gassoff!

My father knew Plagers and Bob Gassoff and would tell me regular stories about what nice guys they were — but on the ice, holy cow! They were animals!

Pound for pound, there was no tougher, meaner group of hockey players ever to step on the ice than those Blues teams in the early/mid 1970s. The Plager Brothers were two of the toughest men ever to play in the NHL. And the best pure fighter to ever step on the ice was Bob Gassoff!

Bob Gassoff was the ultimate enforcer. Even the Plager Brothers — easily in the top 25 best fighters to ever step on the ice in the history of the NHL — would defer fights to their teammate Bob Gassoff.

Of course, there is always the image in my mind of the Blues going up into the stands fighting with the crowd in Philadelphia (a city known for its toughness).

And of course, there is ultimate showdown in the history of the NHL: Bob Gassoff vs. Tiger Williams as to who was the toughest man in the NHL. Both coaches agreed in advance to not let the players on the ice at the same time. But with around three seconds left in the game (and the game already won), there was a dead puck face off. The coaches put Gassoff and Williams on the ice at the same time. They lined up next to each other in the circle, looked directly into each others eyes, nodded to each other and proceeded to drop their gloves and go at it!

What a spectacle! After the fight, Bob Plager grabbed a bloodied Bob Gassoff and skated him around the ice holding his hand up like a referee does for the victorious prize fighter. Gassoff had won the ultimate hockey battle!

I think the markets would be a lot more interesting if we could have enforcers. If someone squeezes you out of your position too many times, you just send over your equivalent of Bob Gassoff to let him know he'd better not do that anymore!

Vinh Tu gets back to the subject of using the head in sports:

HeaderWhen I was between the ages of 8 at 12, my parents signed me up for soccer, and made me go play it, even if it sometimes meant they had to tear me from my Apple II computer. Doing clever things with one's feet was fun, and I'm sure that all the running was beneficial to me, physically. But I also remember heading practice, where a beefy coach would force 10-year-olds to use smack their heads against a flying ball. I remember that I only once, after much trepidation, allowing a ball to hit my head. I immediately knew that the feeling in my head after the impact was not at all good. After that, I could not help but flinch or duck during these heading drills, despite feeling intimidated by the large, angry, frustrated coach. Meanwhile there were a few kids on the team who really took to it and were gleefully smacking their heads against balls launched at them by the coach. It would have been interesting to follow up on my team mates and see if there has been any correlation between being a keen header and intelligence, and a few decades from now, dementia, and also whether there are correlations with other behavioural traits (perhaps lack of caution and restraint, impulsiveness?) and genetic correlations.

Stefan Jovanovich reassures:

BoxingThe most important question to be asked about getting smacked in the head is "where?". The upper forehead and the forward peak of the skull can take a severe impact without any damage; the same blow to the temple will kill a person. There is no question that football players and professional boxers have problems with dementia from the repeated blows to the temple. Vinh Tu's beefy coach was an idiot and bully. The first lesson in learning how to head a ball is teaching the kid to watch the ball into his/her forehead, and the best way to teach that lesson is to have two kids soft-toss the ball back and forth, as if they were playing pepper.

There is very little risk of head injury in amateur boxing; if it is properly worn, the head gear protects the temples and the upper jaw – the two places where you can get hurt.

What is stupid about the design of football head gear are that the helmet is allowed to float; compare the design to military headgear where the webbing and the helmet are cross-braced so they move together.

Tom Marks is skeptical:

InjuryA humble postulate: Nearly all orthopedic and neurological injuries related to professional sports stem from the fact that eons of evolution hardly designed the human body for the unique stresses these activities put on it.

Sports-related head and knee injuries aren't going away anytime soon, especially the latter. Somebody could design a more efficient helmet, but only nature could design a knee that could better withstand the unnatural rigors of playing running back in the NFL. And there's nothing hasty about nature. It tends to deliberate long and hard.





Speak your mind

10 Comments so far

  1. Rui Grenho on September 30, 2009 5:56 pm

    Is it me or is there some confusion going on between soccer (European) and football (United States). As I live in Portugal, where the sport (soccer) is huge, I have evidence of thousands of players (professionals and amateurs) that die and suffer from many diseases (unfortunately), but I don't think brain injuries to be one of them. Actually physical contact with the intention to hurt the other player is strongly punished, so much so that some players tend to fake penalties in order for the other player to be punished by the referee. Regards, Rui

  2. Andrew McCauley on October 1, 2009 1:05 am

    In Australia the highest rating cable & free to air TV sport is Rugby League. In many ways it is just as brutal as the NFL but without the padding & protective equipment.

    A small study (28 ex professional players) conducted by the Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW, Australia in the late 90’s suggested that one of the long term consequences of playing such a physical sport was reduced income & increased personal medical cost post pro sport retirement.

    I’m sure for the most part the elite players in both codes are financially well off in retirement. However, for some players the accumulated grind on the body may reduce the ability to be actively employed & therefore impact on long term earnings potential.

  3. Steve Leslie on October 1, 2009 10:07 am

    John Madden says that football is a collision sport not a contact sport. One only need look at Mike Ditka, Dick Butkus, Joe Namath, Dan Marino, Merrill Hoge, Mike Webster, Troy Aikman to see the deleterious effects of playing the game.

    Lou Holtz says that the career of a NFL running back is less than two years. One always thinks of Emmitt Smith, Fred Taylor, Franco Harris but they also forget about Bo Jackson, Frank Gore and Terrell Davis.

    1.5 million kids play high school football. There are 120 div 1 football programs that offer app 70 scholarships per team. This means that odds are extremely long that your son will get a full schoarship worth $120,000 and up to play football. Parents need to think long and hard about letting their son play high school football and worse football when they are 10-14 and not get deluded into thinking that their child will make it to U of Florida USC Texas The Ohio State University or other such elite program.

    The extra padding that a US football player wears gives them a false sense of security. The helmet is the absolutely most ddangerous element of this equipment. The way it is built lends itself to severe neck injury and paralysis. Evidence there is Mike Utley, Mark Buoniconti Darrell Stingley. Furthermore, the body can be protected only so much. The victim can not adequetly displace the potential energy forced upon him by the projectile of a 6"4' 265lbs Ray Lewis or Jerome Kersee or Albert Haynesworth a monster of a man.

    The players today are absolutely freaks of nature. The smallest men on the field with the exception of the kickers are cornerbacks and the modern safety is as big as Jim Brown when he played 40 years ago.

    The four horsemen of Notre Dame were under 6' tall and weighed less than 180 lbs Alex Karras weighed around 220 lbs when he played defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions in the 60's

    Football is a bloodsport that can trace its heritage back over 120 years. It has endured competition from all other sports through that period of time and College football reigns supreme in popularity. Penn State, Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio State, USC statiums all house over 100,000 people on a saturday and its popularity will not wane any time in the future.

  4. reid wientge on October 1, 2009 10:08 am

    If you play with guys about your age hockey is fun, mostly safe and great exercise and a major boost to the psyche as your entire being relives its youth — an optimal delusion, if you will, but rewarding anyway. I started playing at age seven but many who play in adult leagues are new to the sport.

  5. Nemo on October 1, 2009 1:38 pm

    I was born in South America where there really is no other sport next to soccer. Hitting another player (or running into them) is severely punished and you will get kicked out for doing it. Head shots like the ones described above do happen and probably cause some injuries long term; but look at this context with a sport that is extremely popular in the US and requires no head butts: golf. How many golfers die of obesity and heart attacks? It's even a "thing to do" do smoke cigars and have beer on the 9th hole! Soccer remains on the of the top 5 most popular sports in the world and will probably continue due the fact that you really don't need any equipment (other than a ball) to play it. On average players run 6-8 miles in 90 minutes (2 45-minute periods) chasing the ball. You can choose not to use your "head" to score goals and go for foot dexterity. Vic is right though - I played soccer in a Big 10 college known for its football prowess some 25 years ago — hardly anyone came to our games and the teams rarely included "American" men. They were too busy smashing into themselves in quads around campus playing "football". Girls on the other hand seemed to out-number in attendance to our games by a wide margin.

  6. Ken Drees on October 2, 2009 8:45 am

    More on Gassoff who died young in a motorcycle accident:

    Birth: Apr. 17, 1953
    Death: May 27, 1977

    Professional Hockey Player. He was a tough, hard-nosed, rough and ready defense man who played for the St. Louis Blues. Although he only played 4 years in the NHL, he established himself as one of the elite enforcers during the "anything goes era" of the 1970s when bench-clearing brawls and all-out fighting happened on a regular basis.  […]

  7. Steve Leslie on October 2, 2009 11:03 am

    I don't know much about Bob Gassoff and maybe he was an intimidating enforcer in the old days. However let me include some tough guys from a more modern era: Dave Schultz, Bob Probert, Tony Twist, Dave Brown, Joe Kocur.

    My number one is Dave "Cement head" Semenko. Even Tiger Williams felt that Semenko was the baddest cat in their jungle of enforcers. He played a large part in Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier scoring so many goals.

  8. Steve Leslie on October 2, 2009 11:21 am

    In baseball, the equivalent of fighing in hockey is the unwritten rule where "you hit one of our guys, we hit one of yours." Not so prevalent in the more modern era where each team bench gets a warning and the next guy to throw at the batter gets ejected. In the old days, guys thought twice about digging in against Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Al Hrabosky Lee Smith and Nolan Ryan, especially if in the previous inning one of their players was hbp. You just knew it was coming and took your medicine. Then the benches clear, every body grabs an opposing jersey and dance for a few minutes to appear that they care. The players separate and go back to playing baseball.

    Times were so much simpler then. The problem is that a Pedro Martinez can hit a batter and because of the dh wont have to worry about getting thrown at. Some other poor slob will have to take the medicine for him. In a sick twisted way maybe hockey has it right. Now if they had a commissioner like David Stern, Pete Rozelle, or Bud Selig they would market their product better and it would be much more popular than it is especially outside the few ciies like Detroit, Chicago, Montreal, New York and Philadelphia who embrace their teams.

  9. Ola Dunk on October 3, 2009 8:57 am

    People in Europe play “soccer” well into middle age. It’s a brilliant sport, because it doesn’t require height og extreme physical ability, though speed, stamina and coordination helps.

    I write “soccer”, because it’s real name is football, as in foot and ball, unlike the American version, which has basically dispensed with both kicking and balls.

  10. Craig Bowles on October 6, 2009 8:17 am

    Maybe the steroids are causing injuries as even high school guys use them it seems. Generally, we seem too preoccupied with not losing what we have: increased spending on insurance, wearing helmets when riding a bike, or forcing people to wear seat belts in a car, not willing to take the pain and fix the country's balance sheet. Sports might create problems but playing them sure is fun. One thing that stays the same is kids that don't play sports seem more inclined to get into other activities that often are pretty destructive.


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