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Pushing Competition and Damaging Health: Making Play Offensive

Football causes brain damage, yet we continue to push it.

If American football were a food additive or a drug, it would be banned by the FDA. Or, if financial interests prevented its banning, its package would at least carry a surgeon general's warning: Football causes brain damage. For a layman's summary of the evidence, take a look at Malcolm Gladwell's article, Offensive Play, which appeared in last week's New Yorker (Oct. 19 issue).

Gladwell's article is based largely on his interviews with two neuropathology researchers--Anne McKee and Bennet Omalu--who are specialists in a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurological disorder caused by trauma to the brain, which has symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer's Disease. The most reliable physical marker of CTE, observable only in post-mortem assays, is abnormal tangles of the protein tau in the brain.

McKee has been examining the brains of ex athletes who played contact sports--mostly football players but also some boxers--who died and whose families gave permission. At the time of Gladwell's interview, McKee had examined 16 such brains and found clear evidence of CTE in every one of them. In similar studies, Omalu reported that he found clear evidence of CTE in all but one of the ex football players that he had studied (the single exception was a running back who had not played football very long). Some of these men had died young, some old, but all (except the one) had definite evidence of the kind of brain damage that is known to cause dementia, including severe memory impairment, loss of judgment, and sometimes damaging personality changes. One of McKee's subjects was an 18-year-old boy who had played only high-school football, and even he had the telltale tau marker of CTE. Omalu has also collected stories from the wives of ex football players, detailing the debilitating behavioral changes they had witnessed, often beginning at an age far younger than that at which Alzheimer's Disease first manifests itself.

Football is a sport in which physically powerful boys or men, some of whom are beefed up way beyond normal size and strength, repeatedly line up and smash their heads against one another or throw one another to the ground. Head smashing is intrinsic to the sport. They wear helmets, of course, but no helmet so far designed--or even so far imagined--can protect the brains of these young men from the repeated bangings they receive. Gladwell's article refers to studies showing that even in practice sessions the brains of these players take multiple beatings. According to McKee and Omalu, it is the repeated head banging, which is part of the game itself--not any particular massive blow--that is the primary cause of the CTE that they are observing.

Although the tau evidence is relatively new, other evidence for the brain-damaging effects of football is not new. In fact, arguments for dropping school football programs because of such effects have been put forth periodically for decades. Yet high schools and colleges--including the college with which I am affiliated--now push their football programs harder than ever, and watching NFL games on television is a national pastime. Those pushing football at the college level, especially, are educated people. They know that football damages brains; they know what they are doing, just as cigarette manufacturers knew for decades what they were doing. Yet they continue to do it because the football program is so lucrative. In our sports-crazed world, football, perhaps more than anything else, is what keeps alumni interested in their alma maters and keeps donations flowing in. It is high time that alumni started rebelling. In his article, Gladwell implicitly compares the outrage that we as a society have expressed about the abuse of dogs, in dog fighting, with our lack of outrage about the abuse of boys and young men, in football.

Gladwell's article has led me to reflect more broadly on the corruption of play that occurs when we focus too strongly on competition, when winning becomes more important than just having fun. Before going further, however, let me admit that I have long enjoyed competitive sports. I played and enjoyed varsity basketball, baseball, and track & field in high school; I coached basketball as a means of working my way through college; and my wife will tell you that I'm still (at age 65) a sometimes overly competitive person. When I see someone catching me on my bicycle, or on my kayak, I speed up even though I'm just out for a pleasant ride, and I'm the only one in the family who takes board games such as Scrabble seriously. My wife and stepdaughter quite appropriately tease me, no end, about all this. At a gut level, I buy into the competitive orientation of our society; but my head tells me that we've gone way too far. We push our children into competitive games and act as if "just playing" without competing is a waste of time. By turning play into competition we, as a society, are damaging everyone's health.

Beyond Brain Damage

Health damage caused by our heavy focus on competition extends beyond football and brain damage.

When winning in any activity trumps just having fun, people "play through the pain," so minor injuries of all types turn into major ones.

When winning trumps just having fun, some people take steroids or other drugs that improve performance but do long-term damage.

When winning trumps just having fun, only a few select individuals make the teams, and the rest of society become merely vicarious players, who grow fat and soft as they munch and watch from the stands or their living room couches.

When winning trumps just having fun, good sportsmanship too often goes down the drain.

All this applies to all our activities, including our jobs, not just to sports. Life should be playful, joyful. The compulsion to win can drain the fun out of everything we do, and it can destroy our health in the process.

What do you think? What good and bad experiences have you, your children, or others whom you know had with competitive sports? I would value your comments. I plan to continue the theme of competitive play--or of competition versus play--for the next two or three posts, and I hope to take your experiences, thoughts, and questions into consideration.
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