August 22, 2012

This is your brain on sports

Grantland, the Dave Eggers-Bill Simmons sports writing cooperative, ran a great piece a few weeks ago on concussions. It examined how the oft-mentioned and all-too ubiquitous brain injuries are not just changing the landscape of organized sports, but how they might also soon be the death of them, especially American football.

Autopsies of recently deceased athletes like University of Pennsylvania’s Owen Thomas and ex-Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, both of whom committed suicide, show the grim effects repeated brain trauma can have on a person. Both players suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a form of brain damage often suffered by career boxers.

The more we learn about concussions, the less appealing America’s game becomes. A Purdue University study showed that people who have suffered concussions are more likely to be diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and other congnitively degenerative diseases, and organized football is taking notice.

Former Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer was one of several NFL players in recent years who retired after repeated concussions. Last week, a group of NFL retirees filed suit against the league, citing concussions they had sustained in their playing days. The NFL has even begun outfitting helmets with technology to measure impacts players withstand during hits.

In July 2011, Illinois became the 28th state to pass legislation requiring school districts to educate coaches, athletes and parents/guardians on the dangers of concussions.

For me, the attention surrounding concussions all harkens back to my sophomore year of high school.

I was a member of the practice squad, a 160 pound jayvee linebacker, which even at that level was undersized. One summer practice, our starting fullback, a power-lifting champion, got the ball on a dive play up the middle. I met him in the A-gap, knees bent, shoulders squared, and nearly got my head knocked off. The Grantland article points out that while “the brain is surrounded by a cushion of cerebrospinal fluid, a severe impact or abrupt change in head speed can push those three pounds of meat straight through the fluid, so that it crashes into the cranium.”

A barbed pain slashed across my head as black spots started to cloud my vision. It was something known colloquially as “having your bell rung.” The pain went away after about 15 minutes and I returned to play.

I thought nothing of it until about the seventh week of the season. While making a clean, routine tackle against a smaller player, my head hit the ground, as it tends to when you take another player to the ground. Suddenly the world was fog-covered, like being at the bottom of a swimming pool. Things were spinning. I could not register things being said to me. As I stumbled to the sideline, I nearly missed the bench sitting down. The symptoms —mainly dizziness and confusion—continued to worsen. By nighttime, I was slurring my speech, unable to form a coherent sentence. My dad, who to this day has not forgiven himself, scolded me for not focusing on my Spanish vocabulary for a quiz the following day.

I was diagnosed with a Grade II concussion and missed a week of school, along with the rest of the season. Yet at the same time I felt guilty, as if I were somehow cheating my teammates. There were no bones protruding from my flesh, no season-ending surgery to repair ligament damage. I felt like a fraud. Still, I knew that a third concussion might threaten more than just my playing career. Luckily, it never happened.

The pervasive culture in football and other sports encourage toughness and the ability to fight through pain. In a December survey conducted by the Associated Press, 23 of 44 NFL players said they would hide a concussion rather than exit a game. As all the sports clichés say, you play for your coaches and your teammates and worry about the consequences later.

But as science continues to demonstrate, the perils of doing that can have a lasting impact. As the Grantland feature and many other have argued, we are discovering that it is that same toughness that is destroying the game and the players who play it.

Matt McKinney
Matt McKinney is a senior majoring in creative writing and minoring in journalism. His experience with journalism ranges from a year as co-sports editor for TKS to an internship with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he used his Spanish language skills to report a front-page story on changes to federal immigration policy. He has also written for The Galesburg Register-Mail and Knox’s Office of Communications. Matt is the recipient of the 2012 Knox College Kimble Prize for Feature Journalism and two awards from the Illinois College Press Association, including a first place award for sports game coverage. He is currently interning virtually with The Tampa Bay Times and will pursue his master's next year at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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