Off The Ball: Dangers of high-impact sport difficult to ignore
Given what we now know, exposing our children to high-impact sports is in breach of our moral duty.
This rather stark message is one we’re about to become increasingly familiar with, not least in the short-term, following the release of the new Will Smith movie, ‘Concussion’. Smith plays Dr Bennett Omalu, a Nigerian-born pathologist who worked in Pittsburgh around 2002 and examined the brain of Hall of Fame Steelers centre Mike Webster, after his untimely death aged 50.
Webster suffered from depression, dementia, chronic pain and personality disorder. He ended up divorced and living in a pick-up truck, unsure of what was wrong with him. Omalu was on duty to perform the autopsy. Something didn’t make sense. Webster’s brain looked normal, despite his symptoms. Without knowing what he was looking for, Omalu ordered a full examination of the brain.
His ultimate findings were published in 2005 and following a spate of similar player deaths, even the NFL recognised CTE. Congress got involved. The NFL is currently paying former players $1 billion.
In an interview, which Off The Ball will broadcast next Tuesday, on the subject of rugby and American football, Omalu said: “As a modern society, knowing what we know now, it is our moral duty to stop endangering our children by intentionally exposing them to high-impact, contact sports. We have done that with other harmful factors, including cigarettes and alcohol. Why do we continue exposing our children to the risk of permanent brain damage?”
And here is the key point: CTE or brain damage is not solely caused by concussion, far from it. We obsess here about concussion. Was Johnny Sexton concussed or not, we’ll fret.
This is about repeated brain trauma, and that doesn’t just mean blows to the head. Being stopped suddenly in a tackle can be as damaging as a head blow. Human brains, as Omalu says, float inside the skull, akin to a water-balloon in a glass jar. Shake the jar and the balloon gets damaged.