Football can be considered to be an American equivalent of the Roman gladiator games. We reward our gladiators (players) handsomely, and celebrate in their honor. Covered in their polycarbonate armor, they project an image of invincibility. Pity the poor lion (or running back) that gets in their way.
However, we are learning of the consequences this game has on the athletes, and perhaps we should stop and think about the future.
The human brain is a marvelous thing; Woody Allen calls it his “second favorite organ.” The brain contains roughly 120 billion neurons, and weighs in at only 3 pounds. The raw processing power of the brain rivals the largest supercomputer, yet it will run on a cup of coffee and a candy bar. The brain is about as well understood as a baby. Many books have been written about babies and we think we know all there is to know, until a bottle, diaper or attention doesn’t fix it. Then we are shown for the fools that we are.
The brain is intended to be with you for the duration of your life– it should be your favorite organ. It is protected in layers as it floats in a spinal fluid bath and is surrounded by a hard bony shell otherwise known as the skull. The hair, scalp and soft tissues on the head provide further padding and crash resistance. Even the eyes, a vital extension of the brain, are recessed to avoid damage.
Now let the athletic engineers have a go at it. They start with millions of dollars of careful research in brain trauma and material design. Their high tech computers will map the human head, and the brain inside it. From there, the computers will design a shape for protection and to dissipate force. This model will then be made out of polycarbonate, a hard plastic that spreads localized trauma and resists cave in (of the skull). The shell is then lined with memory foam of various densities and is arranged with great precision. This is no humble brain bucket, it is the best protection money or science can buy.
Due to these incredibly protective “suits of armor” skull fractures have been almost engineered out of existence in professional football.
But all is not well in the kingdom. Assuming our gladiators did not die a glorious death on the field of battle, they rejoin society, more or less successfully. However, we find that they are neither invincible nor immortal but starting to look more like victims; victims of the forces applied to their brain during a football game.
We have all played with gravity. Trampolines, roller coasters, skis and airplanes are all gravity toys. The roller coaster can generate up to 5 Gs of force, as an airplane can, in a loop. These forces build and release over seconds allowing the body to adapt and are rather harmless, all in good fun. Now take two 300-pound guys who can both run over 20 mph. Now, run them into each other. The closing speed of 40 miles per hour can and does generate instantaneous G forces of 100 to 150. If you think of pounds as forces, one G force is equivalent to almost one ton. The helmet does work though, football players are rarely knocked out. But the force does deform the brain against the skull forcefully enough to injure it.
The injury is subtle. An MRI or CT scan won’t be able to detect anything after a solid hit or even 100 hits. But keep banging up the brain and it will slowly start to show. Years later, players will start having difficulty with balance and coordination. This happens to someone who once had the coordination of superman, being able to run full out and leap into the air to catch a football.
Trouble with thinking soon follows including confusion and even dementia. It is no surprise these former athletes can become deeply depressed, and suicidal.
The damage is simply a force of physics. It is measurable and predictable. However, how each person and their brain respond to it are highly variable. We have all met the 80 year old smoker, bragging that smoking is what keeps them alive. The trouble is; we didn’t know he was bullet-proof 40 years ago, most people aren’t. We don’t have a test for predicting whether an individual is “safe to smoke,” and we don’t have a test for determining if someone “tolerates brain trauma.” And the young are immortal, so who will listen. It is up to us to speak up.