Thursday, May 6, 2010

Brain Damaged Ben?

Irrespective of which he was guilty of anything criminal in the incident for which he wasn't charged last month, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is clearly a major asshole, as this Sports Illustrated cover piece reveals in painful detail. That's not necessarily news (plenty of professional athletes are assholes - paging Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Jose Canseco, and Michael Jordan), nor is it something about which I've got much more to say than I already have. However, one of the reporters responsible for the piece, David Epstein, wrote a very interesting sidebar piece exploring the possibility that Roethlisberger's antisocial behavior may be the result of damage to the frontal lobe of his brain. Impulse control problems of the sort Roethlisberger clearly has are consistent with injuries of that sort, and in addition to four documented concussions suffered on the football field, he also sustained serious head injuries in a motorcycle accident in 2006, as the story notes. Obviously, Epstein is no neurologist, and the neurologists he interviews for his story haven't examined Roethlisbeger, so this possibility is mere speculation, but it is intriguing speculation.

From the sad cases of Andre Waters and Mike Webster, it's quite clear that a long career in professional football poses a significant risk of serious and enduring head injury, and while the league has taken steps to increase awareness of the issue, they can't alter the fact that violent collisions between very large men running at full speed are a part of the game. Given that, a certain number of brain injuries are inevitable, and I wonder if at a certain point we won't decide as a society that football, at least as it's played now, is too dangerous to be respectable, a question Malcolm Gladwell explored in a provocative piece in the New Yorker last autumn comparing the sport to dogfighting. I'm not quite ready to ban the game (I love it as much as the next American man), but I am becoming increasingly convinced that fundamental rule changes to make it safer may be imperative. Limiting substitutions is one idea I like - if players had to play both ways and endurance were as important as speed and power, as in similarly physical sports like rugby and ice hockey, smaller physiques would predominate and collisions would entail less force. Furthermore, one of the major points of opposition to sweeping change in any sport - the argument from tradition - wouldn't apply in this case, since football originally was played two ways and if anything, such a reform would be returning the game to its roots. There are a lot of ideas out there (some of which Gladwell notes), and it may be time to start looking into some of them.

In any case, as much as I enjoyed playing football when I was in high school (and I did), I'm glad I quit before it turned my brain to mush.

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