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Opinion

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?

CTE testing will eventually force sports fans to make a decision on what they're willing to watch, Gary Lawless writes. Someday we'll be able to measure the effect of a helmet-to-helmet collision in real time.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

CTE testing will eventually force sports fans to make a decision on what they're willing to watch, Gary Lawless writes. Someday we'll be able to measure the effect of a helmet-to-helmet collision in real time.

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.

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.