Reflections on Concussions I’ve Seen

The National Football League has finally begun to take the issue of football injuries, specifically concussions which can lead to the disabling brain disorder known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) seriously. Now we have a film which details the struggles to arrive at that diagnosis and to begin working on the issue. The film, of course, is “Concussion” which provides us with an apt overview

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of the destruction caused by CTE, the lives ruined, the lives ended and the brave physician who worked against all odds to bring science to the issue.

Dr. Bennett Omalu knew he was on the right track and, when funds were refused for his research, he used his own money. Then, after finding enough cases, he wrote a paper which was initially received with some scepticism by the medical community and dismissed by the NFL. After all, it wasn’t in the NFL’s best interests (read that profits) to agree with his conclusions which would mean potential payouts to former players and their families.

Now the cat is out of the bag after too many aged and even young football players, and now even hockey players, have suffered the debilitating, mind altering effects of years of brain poundings. As Omalu explained, the brain has no

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shock absorbing internal mechanism and when a head hits an immovable object, the brain rebounds and bounces around inside the skull. Each pull and whip causes tearing of small blood vessels and tissue damage from which the player cannot recover given enough hits. Helmets provide inadequate protection even though the search is on for a better one than those used today. The beginnings of CTE may even start in early childhood football, soccer and hockey.

Coaches are shrugging the injury concerns off and some are saying that all sports are potentially damaging in some way. But the brain cannot be equated with a broken arm, a sprained ankle, a groin pull or any other physical injury.

The brain is

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the seat of who we are and it is a soft, gelatinous ball of tissue that is not meant for anything but floating quietly in its safe home under its three “mothers”; the dura mater (sometimes called the “strong mother’) the arachnoid mater and the pia mater ( or “little tender mother”). But even these three mothers cannot protect it sufficiently against the severe impact of blows to the head from sports activities.

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I spent years in my childhood interacting with men who bore the outward symbols of head injuries not from football, but prize fighting. I stood ring side in a church hall as Tiger Jones took repeated blows to the body and head and marveled that his cuts were closed with household green and red thread.

As a child, I came to recognize the unsteady gait, the garbled speech, the disfigured ears (cauliflower ear) and the noses broken too many times to be set straight again. They were, I was told, “punch drunk.” I knew that meant that they had many fights in the ring and it had taken its toll, but I was too young to fully appreciate what it meant.

Today, we recognize punch drunk with a more serviceable medical term,dementia pugilistica. It is not something to be taken lightly or seen as a harmless symptom of prizefighting. The men I met hadn’t won fame in the ring. They were mere human body bags (aka sparring partners) for poundings to perfect the skills of another.

When they could no longer stand up and defend themselves sufficiently to be useful in training another, they were tossed aside and soon became known by another street name, “bottle babies.” In other words, they were homeless, chronic alcoholics now. If they still weren’t too bad off, they got “jobs” as runners for the bookies in the neighborhood. The Mafia took pity on them.

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Thoughts of these men, harmless, always pleasant to me when I met them on the street, were roused from my memory banks after someone reminded me of another woman fighter, Ronda Rousey, a mixed martial arts fighter. Rousey, a fierce combatant, was defeated unexpectedly in a match she admits caused her, from the first beginning blow, to become unfocused and, possibly, concussed.

She already had a cauliflower ear in her earlier life from her professional fights. How many concussions has she had? If anyone knows, including Rousey, they’re probably not telling. Is CTE in her future and does she think of it? No one’s talking about that, either, but it is a sure bet she’ll have it if she keeps up the fighting and the beating she’s getting in the ring no matter if she wins or loses.

Ronda Rousey’s brain has no more protection than did Frank Gifford, Junior Seau (who committed suicide), Joe Louis (ended up as a Las Vegas greeter), Muhammad Ali, or Jerry Quarry. True, they say Ali has Parkinson’s, but he’s taken over 1K blows to the head by one writer’s calculations in an article in The New York Times years ago. His face may be pretty but no one knows the condition of his brain.

So, I wonder how Rousey will spend her days after the ring and if she’ll have been able to carefully keep her finances intact so she can get the care she may need. Yeah, I think about these things.

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