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Ringing His Bell

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When the distance between your beliefs and the facts become extreme we can suffer from what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, the mental equivalent of the tines of a fork scraping across a blackboard.

I am beginning to have cognitive dissonance over football.

The immediate cause are the concussions suffered by Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and running back LeSean McCoy. But those are just triggers to a deeper concern about the violence inherent in the sport and its long-term consequences.

Here are two facts we can state conclusively:

Football is America's premier sport. The NFL rules. It is a lucrative -- make that an extremely lucrative business -- for owners, players, coaches and the whole sports-industrial complex that feeds off the game, a list that includes the media in all forms.

The second fact is what science is telling us about concussions, research that could fill a filing cabinet with studies that I will attempt to summarize in a mere handful of words: concussions are more common, can happen more easily and can have more severe long-term effects than we thought previously.

Thanks to advancements in medical science we know more about the brain than ever before.  And researchers who look into concussed brains do not like what they see.

As of now, researchers cannot draw a direct line between concussions and such maladies as dementia, memory loss and depression.  But, the dots get thicker every day.

Just this week the aptly named journal Brain published a study based on brain samples taken from 85 deceased athletes.  Of the 85 men, 80 percent (68) showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (also known as C.T.E.), an incurable disease whose symptoms include depression and dementia.

The list included the brains of six high-school football players, nine college football players, seven pro boxers, four pro-hockey players and 33 men who played in the NFL.

This study, obviously, is limited and the author's caution that it cannot be used to predict the percentage of pro-football players likely to develop C.T.E.  Nor does it prove that a single concussion will lead to madness down the road.  The total amount of head trauma, including smaller subconcussive hits, as well as how they are treated, have to be considered, according to a New York Times report on the study.

The NFL is currently being sued by hundreds of former players saying the league's lax views on hits to the head did them permanent damage.  The suit -- and the research -- has led the league to impose new diagnostic and treatment protocols dealing with concussions. 

In the old days, "getting your bell rung," was the name given to such injuries and treatment consisted of a dose of smelling salts.  Then, it was back into the game.

The NFL, up to its hips in alligators on this issue, has taken steps to curb helmet-to-helmet incidents. It even changed its kick-off rules to cut down on the number of runbacks, a move unpopular with fans, who criticized the league for trying to sissify the game.

The unintended consequence of the change in the NFL's stance is that we now have more data on concussions in pro-football than ever before, and the data shows how widespread they are.  During the 2010 season, 270 players had concussions.  Last year it dropped to 226, a decline most experts attributed to the change in the kick-off rule.  This year, through Week Nine of the season, 127 players -- Vick and McCoy are included in that number -- have had concussions.  Based on this number, experts who follow this issue believe the NFL is on its way to having more concussions this season because the majority of concussions happen after Week Nine.

Obviously, concussions are different than other sports injuries because of the short- and long-term effects.  For one thing, research shows that people who suffer concussions once are likely to be more susceptible to them.

For another, while joint and ligament injuries can be serious, the body can heal.  You may have gimpy knees when you are in your 60's (who doesn't?), but you won't be drooling into your oatmeal and forgetting your kids' names because of an ACL tear.

This is why I wince every time a see a player go down and out.

Vick, in particular, has been a punching bag for opposing teams, due mostly to the Eagles, um, porous offensive line.  I was at the Linc the day he went down and I was unaware he was out of the game until I saw a camera crew filming him being escorted to the locker room.  There was no dramatic hit on the guy.  He just hit his head falling backwards on a play.  And he got up seeing stars.  Vick played another play before he was pulled out.  And, given the nature of NFL players, he probably would have stayed in if it were his choice. Fortunately, it was not.

As Albert Einstein noted, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. 

Applied to football that means that the NFL can tamper with rules and procedures 'til the cows come home, but it will be defeated by the inherent nature of the game.  That's why they call it a contact sport.  Though contact may not be the right word to describe a 325-pound linebacker slamming into a 215-pound quarterback or running back.

Football isn't a contact sport, it is a collision sport.

Fortunately for my cognitive dissonance, the Eagles have made it easy for me to free up Sunday afternoons to do something other than watch them play. It means less wincing. Maybe we'll take in more movies.

But, the institutional cognitive dissonance will be harder to dispel. And as brain research advances, the ramifications for all sports will be profound.  PeeWee football anyone? How about headers in Under-14 soccer games? Head-first slides into home base?

Contact sports today may be where cigarette smoking was in 1964, on the eve of the Surgeon General's report.

 -- Tom Ferrick

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