Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 26/2/2015 (2191 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Pro sports isn't closing its doors because of a growing number of dead athletes with damaged brains.
But someday we'll be able to measure the effect of a punch to the head or a helmet-to-helmet collision in real time and then we'll have to ask ourselves -- are we OK with watching the already punch drunk become even drunker?
What questions will we ask when we learn an athlete in his prime already has brain disease? What decisions will we make when faced with the knowledge we are paying to watch an irreparably damaged athlete?
A growing segment of society already accepts how the making of pornography dehumanizes its actors. Pro sports is likely to be no different.
The recent success of 50 Shades of Grey shows we have a soft spot for soft porn. This isn't a drunken salesman ordering up Spectravision in a hotel room. This is your mother and her book club friends spending two hours taking a peek at the BDSM world. We don't think of our performers as real people. They're on the stage for our pleasure, no matter the cost to their lives.
When we learn the professional sports leagues we watch on TV, from hockey to football to boxing and MMA, are turning the brains of those athletes into porridge, will we look away?
Maybe we already know this. And there's been no sign of abatement where our appetite for violence in our games is concerned.
Last week's announcement that researchers at UCLA think they have a way to test for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living patients isn't close to being recognized as good science -- but it's coming.
What will the NHL do about fighting? What will the CFL do about the cost of such testing? Will the NFL write another "be quiet" cheque? And what will we do in the press box and at home on our couches in front of our big screens?
Doctors also believe a test for a marker that indicates whether a person is genetically pre-disposed to concussions, which can eventually lead to CTE, is also on the way.
Within 10 years we're going to know a lot more about what happens to our brains when we've been concussed. What we do about it will be the major story in sport at all levels, from kids to pros. The moral, ethical and legal implications of the knowledge will change the sports we choose to play and watch.
Pro athletes put their bodies on the line for money. That cane Angela Mosca needs to get around and the help Bobby Hull needs to get out of a chair? Those are the consequences of their careers. Arthritis might as well have its own jersey in the rafters. It's a Hall of Fame badge.
But what about dementia? Depression? Suicide? Who knowingly would sign up for those? We are about to find out.
Although science is still playing catch-up, people in the sports business are already choosing sides.
Free Press hockey writer Tim Campbell recently asked Jets winger Anthony Peluso if he would be interested in taking a CTE test.
"What a tough question," Peluso said. "I think there's a personal aspect, how you feel. If you feel like you're fine, I don't think I'd want to take the chance of finding that you're not. If you're doing your daily stuff and you're OK at work and able to do it to the best of your ability, then I don't think there's a reason to try to find out. As the old saying goes, don't fix something that's not broken.
"Maybe after your career is done, you may want to take a stab and make sure there hasn't been any harm done to your body, or if there's a way to fix it. But that's a different scenario.
"But I think while you're playing, there's not really a sense to find out something that's not broken."
Arthur Schafer is a professor at the University of Manitoba and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics. Schafer says science will one day demonstrate how dangerous our games have become.
"The real point is that hockey players are risking their lives in a sport that is unnecessarily dangerous, and it's a scandal," Schafer said. "A real scandal that management hasn't taken steps to prevent concussions in the first place to make the sport safer. Now it's not that they have taken no steps, but they have taken pathetically weak steps.
"When you consider what is at stake for the players, I think it's nothing short of a scandal that the league permits games to be played in such a way that puts such a high percentage of players at such a serious risk of such a dire disease."
Now, if there were a test that could tell a sports league which players have brain disease, surely management, players and their unions would want that test to be mandatory. Knowing that an active star athlete was playing with CTE would be seismic.
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Sidney Crosby has missed almost two seasons due to post-concussion syndrome. What would Crosby's CTE test reveal and how would that knowledge affect his future?
"What could this test do to the NHL?" said Schafer. "Will the NHL have an ethical responsibility to have its players take this test? They could make it mandatory. If they won't ban fighting, which I think is a 'no-brainer' of a measure to take, would they considerably risk losing three-quarters of their players?
"What the league has to do, what is it morally obliged to do, once they definitively know that there is a high risk of a serious injury to a significant portion of the people on the ice? Then they have a moral obligation to transform the game," said Schafer. "There are a lot of things (pro sports leagues) could do if they cared, and they won't care unless the players care and or fans. It's not just the sport and the money, but it's their life. It defines who they are. Without their brain they cease to be a person."
Life is dangerous. But we wear seatbelts. We wear motorcycle helmets. We eat right. We exercise. We quit smoking. We exercise caution where our health is concerned.
If a doctor could give my child a test and say whether or not a genetic marker suggesting a predisposition to concussions is present, sign me up. Tennis and golf to the right, soccer and hockey to the left. We tend to make informed decisions. For me, this is no different.
Maybe it will come down to "buyer beware" for pro athletes. Maybe it already does.
WHAT IS CTE?
A brain-injury study conducted at the Boston University School of Medicine showed that 33 of 34 NFL players tested post-mortem showed clear signs of CTE.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head. CTE has been known to affect boxers since the 1920s. However, recent reports have been published of neuropathologically confirmed CTE in retired professional football players and other athletes who have a history of repetitive brain trauma. This trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. These changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement. The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse-control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.
-- Boston University, CTE Center
What they're saying
Dr. Julian Bailes, lead researcher of a new UCLA study, which claims to diagnose CTE in living subjects:
"This is the holy grail of CTE, to make the diagnosis in living people. It's an intriguing test. But it's not for everyone. People are different. Some people say, 'Why do I want to know I have CTE if there is no cure?' But maybe, if they are an active pro athlete, it may be helpful for a retirement decision. It's a little bit like genetic testing for some diseases. If you're a woman, do you want to know if you have the gene for breast cancer?"
"NHLPA is interested in having our doctors reviewing the medical journal once it is available," wrote an association communications staffer.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly:
"We and the NHLPA are continuously looking to improve the level and quality of care for our athletes and make that care as state-of-the-art as possible. And, historically, we believe we have done a very good job of that. Having said that, there always has to be a high level of satisfaction that the process, method and/or technology at issue is reliable and has strong consensus support and validation in the medical community before we would ever be prepared to mandate its standardization on a League-wide basis."
CFL president and CEO Michael Copeland:
"We're aware of the reports on this research and we are monitoring the situation along with our medical personnel. We have no further comment at this time."
CFLPA president Scott Flory:
"The CFLPA is constantly reviewing any new research studies, that are approved by a research ethics board and peer reviewed, in relation to concussions."
Dr. Michael Ellis, medical director, Pan Am Concussion Program co-director, Canada North Concussion Network
"To date, I am aware of several small studies that have investigated the use of novel neuroimaging tools to provide an estimate of the volume and distribution of proteins in the brain that have been implicated in the pathogenesis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other neurodegenerative conditions.
"However, there is big difference between a research study that provides preliminary, investigational insight into the pathogenesis of a medical condition and one that has been sufficiently validated to be responsibly offered to patients to help inform medical decision-making.
"In my opinion, it would be very premature and irresponsible for me to speculate about how an unpublished research study will impact the management of concussion patients or professional sports before it can be comprehensively examined by other experts in the fields of neuroimaging and neurodegenerative diseases."
Arthur Schafer, Professor at the University of Manitoba and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics
"In a minimally decent world, what would we do? What we would do is make the sport safer. Who would knowingly put their brain at risk? It's early death, it's dementia and it's also the death of who you are at an early age. Maybe monstrous acts- murder, suicide, drug addiction and alcoholism to cope with an intolerable life. The problem with sports it that the benefits are front-loaded. You get the thrill, excitement, wealth and fame that all come at the beginning and the sad lonely desperate, the long process of dying come decades later. But until there is a cure, and there is no cure or treatment in prospect at the moment, expect stopping hitting the wall and damaging your brain. But this test may be too late for players, and it may not be right for all of the players.
"In the end the only thing that really makes sense is to change the sport so that people can play it at every level, from amateur to professional without a substantial risk of a dire brain illness."