Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sports and the primitive man

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BRISBANE -- That footballers are stupid is a cliché repeated by campus nerds who envy the athleticism of these modern-day warriors who command so much public attention and get paid so much cash.

But the suggestion that some footballers might be seriously brain-damaged is no mean-spirited attempt to denigrate the jocks.

It's a hypothesis seriously examined in the neurological world, and it may well be a sign that, much like bear- baiting and the Mesoamerican ball game, the more physical codes have begun their slow march from national obsessions to historical oddities.

This week the link between football and brain damage, which has already received publicity across America and Canada, turned up on our shores, just as the footy season got into full swing.

The award-winning Australian Broadcasting Corp. Four Corners program revealed evidence a player need not hit the deck, suffer a blackout and be diagnosed with concussion to suffer serious damage to the brain.

Much like the boxer who cops a decade of hits but rarely falls insensible to the canvas, hard tackles can apparently leave a nasty neurological legacy.

A former New Zealand rugby union player Steve Devine told of the devastating impacts: "I remember being in the dressing sheds and talking about moves that we thought would work in the second half and I remember hearing these moves' names and I just had absolutely no idea what they were," he told Four Corners.

Once, on driving home and into his garage, he found himself so fatigued he couldn't get to the bedroom to lie down and fell asleep in the hallway.

"I was a dead man walking.''

In the manner of modern medicine the condition now has a title that U.S. neurologist Bob Cantu from Boston University reveals as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Injuries are not at a level to cause a recognized concussion "but sub-concussive blows can cumulatively lead to damage to the brain.''

In Australia, the University of Queensland's Bradley Partridge has written about the condition in the Medical Journal of Australia and believes urgent research is needed.

Jeffrey Rosenfeld, director of neurosurgery at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, has suggested school-age players seriously concussed three times should be sidelined, while the Australian Football League is taking the potential legal ramifications seriously.

Australians can still accept unwarranted displays of physical violence in their sporting arenas. And while Canadians have a reputation for courteous behaviour on the field, that lacrosse brawl in Nanaimo, B.C., last weekend does suggest some hotheads still lurk beneath the notion of gentlemanly competition.

Rugby League, perhaps our most violent strain of football, often includes spilling of "the claret'' while those injured and carried off the field to waiting ambulances can still be greeted not with a solemn silence from a concerned crowd but robust cheers of approval.

Today, even as aging footy fans howl in disbelief, questions are being asked about why weekly displays of violence are so necessary.

There's an argument the game of football is simply an evolutionary overhang from a time when tribal displays of aggression and strength made us feel secure that our young men were battle-ready and prepared to go over the top.

Today we need the young to strengthen their minds rather than bodies to further national aims and so, in evolutionary theory at least, we should be cheering them on at weekend intellectual contests that guarantee massive media exposure as well as extraordinary financial rewards.

True, the local football hero is unlikely to die a quick death, and Mark Zuckerberg look-alikes playing speed chess are not going to dominate weekend sporting headlines any time soon.

But with salivating lawyers gazing at chronic traumatic encephalopathy inside a legal framework that punishes those who facilitate physical injury, it's highly probable that the century ahead will host an historic revenge of the nerds.

The future belongs to the highbrows, not the halfbacks.

Michael Madigan is the Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2012 A12

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