Sunday, February 7, 2016

Hitting Your Head Against a Wall

To my recollection, I have only been knocked out twice in my life, both times playing soccer. The first time was nearly a disaster—not because of the injury—because the opponents almost scored a goal. And therein lies the problem.

The day I write this blog (February 3, 2016), two more former football players were diagnosed to have suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). I remember watching both quarterbacks. Earl Morrall was the elder. He died in 2014 at age 79. I was a BIG FAN of Kenny Stabler (“the Snake”). He is a near contemporary of mine, dying at age 69 in 2015. The severity of CTE is measured on a four-point scale. Stabler was a high stage 3 and Morrall was stage 4.

It’s not just older guys. Ex-Giant safety Tyler Nash had stage 2 CTE when he died of a drug overdose in 2015. NFL star Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2013, was also at stage 2.

What am I? Who knows? Doctors can only determine the stage of this disease post-mortem. And as of this writing, I am still on the green side of the grass.

Back to that day at Lafayette College: seconds before my injury, our goalie had been accidently kicked in the head while batting a ball away. He lay prone on the field. Soccer does not stop for injuries while the ball remains in play unless a compound fracture is evident or a player is spurting blood. To stop play the ball must be booted out of bounds. The opponents controlled the ball, and they were trying to score with me, left defensive back, in a goal mouth unable to use my hands to block their shot.

The scoring attempt was a high-arching shot aimed for the upper left portion of the net. I had springs for legs in those days and leapt high to head the ball away. I succeeded, flicking it over the goal post, giving up a corner kick but allowing coaches to attend to our goalie. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a splash of blue jersey. Lafayette’s jerseys are maroon.

The next thing I recall was the acrid smell of ammonia and the trainer asking me how many fingers he was holding up. I said, “Two.” I was just coming to, having had my head cracked into the goal post by the opposing player who was legitimately trying for a goal. I couldn’t even focus on the trainer’s hand, let alone know how many fingers he had up when I answered. I knew only one thing: I wanted to stay in the game.

Two was the right answer and I remained in the game. Our goalie did have to come out. My concussion occurred early in the second half. The next day I had no recollection of the rest of the game. I had to ask my roommate, who was also on the team. No one told the coach I had faked it. They all understood. Most would have done the same.

Keep me in, Coach.

My second concussion occurred when two of us went up for a head ball. I got the ball; the opponent got me. We both went down in a heap. I guessed three fingers this time and played the rest of the game.

Over years of playing soccer in junior high, senior high, college and semi-pro, not to mention countless pickup games, I have headed the soccer ball thousands of times. No one knows what effect heading soccer balls has on a player’s brain. Ankle injuries, not concussions, ended my playing days. But if you had told me at age, say, nineteen, that if I kept playing soccer I would have knees that always hurt, bone bruises up and down my shins, shoulder injuries, and that eventually I would (not just might, but definitely would) end up with CTE, none of that information would have mattered to me. I would have continued to play. Crazy?

Yes, but that’s teenager logic, and teenagers aren’t really the best risk assessors, so no surprise. But that’s not the biggest problem. I will also admit that if you gave me the choice today to go back and change my past behaviors, there are many things I would like to change; playing soccer is not one of them. I was fully alive on a soccer field, and I would not take that experience away from my younger self.

Money was not the motivator. I mostly played soccer for free; I just happened to be good enough that after college I could play for beer money. God knows that if the price of a million-dollar contract to professionally play the game I loved was beating my head against a wall, I would surely have done it for all I cared about the long-term consequences of that decision.

The problem is two-fold: Kids don’t care and society doesn’t care. The NFL is a huge money-maker because enough of us, and I include myself because I enjoy watching NFL football, don’t care strongly enough about player safety to turn off the television. We know players are trading years of future pain for our hours of TV pleasure. We wish for a magic pill that will make the problem go away. It’s not just football, of course. Boxing is all about knocking the opponent out, and society permits it. The only difference between us in 2016 and the Romans at the Coliseum is that we no longer root for the lions.

If you are a parent concerned CTE may affect your kids in the future, you had better work very, very, hard to find a really attractive alternative early in your child’s life to satisfy the needs sports currently does. Society does not care about your child’s brain; it cares about entertainment. It prefers to provide football fields and soccer pitches and basketball courts for schools and fund them, while being perfectly willing to eliminate art and music. Society lavishly rewards star athletes who cause injury to others. NFL players command millions of dollars a year. Floyd Merriweather reportedly made over $220 million for his fight on May 2, 2015 against Manny Pacquiao.

Parents, you will not get help from the larger world if you want to protect your children from the negative effects of sports. Your kids will fight back, and society will side with the kids.

If you are an author reading this and you write about a teenage or twenties male, keep this in mind: males that age are invincible and we will gladly trade forty old-age years for five good young years. In fact, as long as today is good, life is good.

I’m fine, Coach; put me in.

~ Jim


  1. Great post, Jim. This is so important, and I'll admit I'm a hypocrite (and thus part of the problem) -- I didn't want my child to play football (and he didn't) but I love to watch the game. There's something so beautiful about the perfectly thrown ball or the magnificent catch. But as our understanding of the long-term damage grows, I've become more conflicted.

  2. Kids play a more intense level of sports at a younger age, usually focusing on one sport and one position, which leads to burn-out and early injuries. Playing at this level is a tough decision because rec leagues don't offer a high enough level of competition.

    Soccer players could wear protective head and eye gear, but they don't. I've known kids to continue playing until their next and final concussion.

    I agree, it's time to make head injuries a priority. Coaches and trainers are already under stricter rules. It's time to educate players and parents.

  3. I have always puzzled over why various societies put such a large portion of their often scarce resources, both human and financial (in whatever form that may be) to entertainment of one sort or another. Is it the desire to "belong" to something bigger and more important than ourselves?

    As a special education teacher, I have seen the effects of traumatic brain injuries on young people, usually as a result of accidents, although some are sports-related. The kid in a wheelchair because he broke his neck playing football. The girl who couldn't remember what class was next, even with it posted on the outside of her notebook, after she landed on her head during cheer leading practice. I have a cousin in his 50's who is a paraplegic living in a nursing home

    We all take risks. And I don't feel that other people should be telling us what risks to take. But I also don't like to see dangerous activities glamorized so that our vulnerable youth is encouraged to disregard the risks.

    I don't follow sports myself, and I will not be watching football today.

  4. So often, the parents are living vicariously through their children so they aren't acting like parents, and they don't acknowledge their children are in pain. More likely, they belittle their children's complaints of pain as whining. They're embarrassed by their kids not being superstars. They tell their kids to "suck it up." It's the coaches, who are cautious, because as soon as real health troubles with the kids arise, the parents are the first ones to call their lawyers and sue the leagues.

    One of the problems is that leagues categorize kids by age rather than size. At age ten, one boy can look like a seven-year-old and another can be going on fourteen. I remember my son playing football with kids who were too big and little on the same field. Yes, they are taught to hit.

    I'll never forget the time I was washing my son's football jersey. I was scrubbing the shoulders trying to get marks off that just wouldn't come off. My son looked at me working and told me to stop trying. I asked him why. He said, "The jerseys get laminated by the plastic helmets and pads when we hit each other." They hit each other so hard that plastic laminated the fabric of their jerseys! I'm still trying to get my head around that fact. If he hadn't told me, there's no way I would have guessed why I couldn't remove the stain. Once he did, I realized it was sort of clear, hard, and stiff. So, no, the helmets and pads help, but not when they're hitting each other that hard. Of course, my son now has shoulder issues, his right, which he lead with on the field. We really tried to discourage him. But if you are on the high school football team it's an honor. You are one step higher on the totem pole. Perhaps it goes back to the tribe and the great hunter.

    There is also the issue of scholarships. It is a way for a kid to advance despite financial family hardships. So kids know this is one of the only chances they have, and parents get into the money game even when they can afford to send their kids to college--it's competition and to the winner--the spoils. Academic debt can amount to $100,000 or more. There are real reasons for "sucking it up."

    It would be better if there were more scholarships, not just academic or sports. Why not culinary, or social science, or writing/English scholarships for college entry? Why not--in football at least--it's the money. (and writing sure isn't a big money game, at least not for most!)

  5. Very well said, Jim. There are no easy solutions. Children we can't trust with lunch money, are not the ones to decide their long-term health issues. Coaches have a vested interest in keeping players in the game. Parents have to decide and many parents push their children to play despite the risks.

  6. Julie -- I'm right with you and I'll be watching the game this evening at a neighborhood party.

    Margaret -- You are right that kids specialize at much earlier ages, which I understand, but never thought was healthy for most kids. I always enjoyed three sports a year: soccer, basketball or volleyball, baseball or track. In my time no one really knew the long-term effects of repetitive head injuries. Now we do, and I think you are right that most coaches are proactive, but kids (and their parents) push back.

    KM -- I'm not a sociologist, but I think childhood games serve as a learning proxy for adulthood. I'm sure it was more proximate when we were hunting societies, but even today players learn leadership skills, teamwork, societal rules, etc. We send our tribe's representatives to battle the other side's, first on the playing fields of Eaton or the University of Alabama and later in Flander fields of desert sands. In the end it mostly comes down to a combination of survival and passing on our genes rather than their genes.

    EB -- athletic scholarships come back to the money issue. If colleges weren't making big money off football & basketball, there wouldn't be nearly the rush for colleges to offer athletic scholarships.

    Warren -- I think you have capsulized the issue well.

    ~ Jim

  7. As one of the adults who has been appalled by the reports of CTE in athletes I can only ask what were we thinking. As an adult who has lived through childhood I have a deep sense that there is no way to truly protect a child from being a child. We had kids knocked cold at recess. And they weren't fighting, they were playing kickball! Lets hope that as we learn more and more about the consequences of sport and life, that we also learn more and better means of protection.

    Would any of the professional athletes have traded their injuries for a different career? I don't know, but I'm betting that most would have opted to carry on, even with full knowledge of the consequences. Their families, however, may well have a different perspective.

    Take care, Jim. As a soccer fan, I have always wondered about the effects of headers.

  8. My oldest son wasn't into sports, but the younger one was for a short while. He never suffered and injury on the field, but did have a bicycle accident that left him unconscious beside the road. Fortunately, it was a dead end road and a neighbor picked him up and brought him home. He couldn't remember anything about that day.

    One of the things I hated about youth sports when my younger son played, was the screaming by parents and often coaches at kids when they made an error. It's not a fun game for kids, when they're trying so hard to please parents and coaches. Back yard or school yard games without adults interfering are much better for kids, in my opinion.

    I've never been interested in sports except basketball because that's the only game that was played when I went to school. The only football I watched was when my two stepsons played high school football. The oldest one was an awesome running back, but I worried about all those big brutes trying to attack him. His brother played defense, and I was told he was good, but all I could see was a big pile of players on the ground. Anyway, the oldest played at the college level for a year, and then dropped out so he could take up bull riding instead. Fortunately, after a few years traveling around the country doing it, he quit when one of his buddies he traveled with quit, and when he got a girlfriend he really liked and eventually married. He still has a scar on his face where he was gored.