Cheering on the Carnage

by Steve Hartshorne on January 1, 2013

Exposure to asbestos, a material once commonly used in the construction industry, is now known to cause malignant mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. How, I ask, did the public find out about this? Did any of the agencies of government charged with protecting the public find out about it and take quick action? Did the hounddogs passing themselves off as newshounds break the story? Did the asbestos companies notice that they weren’t paying any old-age pensions?

In fact the link between asbestos exposure and malignant mesothelioma was first brought to public attention by an article in The New Yorker magazine.

Back in 2009, The New Yorker published an article by Malcolm Gladwell about the effects of football on the brain. Gladwell cites brain experts Ann McKee and Bennet Omalu, both of whom examine thin slices of donated brains of boxers and football players and Alzheimer’s patients. Working with donated brains rules out any systematic study, but the work they have done on the brains they have is very alarming.

We don’t even need to talk about boxing. Just look at Mohammed Ali, one of America’s greatest heros, the warrior whose strength was not to fight, who was willing to trade his status as champion of the world for a narrow jail cell rather than kill innocent people in Vietnam. If you are a boxing promoter, or just a nitwit, you might be able to make yourself believe that he was predisposed to dementia and that boxing had nothing to do with it. For the rest of us, the tragedy is plain.

But what McKee and Bennet found, according to Gladwell, is that the dementia found in boxers and football players — and soccer players, too, by the way — ┬áis distinctly different from Alzheimer’s. It is an enormous additional risk, over and above the risk the rest of us face.

And they found this sizeable additional risk of dementia even in men who played a couple of years of college football.

We’ve seen a lot of folderol from the NFL about protecting players from those savage hits by defenders in the secondary that make everyone cheer, but nothing about the systematic injury that occurs every time an offense moves down the field.

I love football. I pull over to watch high school teams scrimmage. But when the scientific evidence makes its way, as it always does, from The New Yorker to the general public, I think we may all feel guilty for having watched it and cheered on the carnage.

And on top of that, when do you suppose they’ll ban boxing or make a rule forbidding soccer players to head the ball? I’m quite sure it will happen someday, but in the meantime, how much fun is it to watch people suffer irreparable brain injury?

My kid is grown up, but if she were little, I would never consider letting her play football or soccer.

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