17 Oct 2009
TOO MANY seasons ago, Fitzroy co-opted to training one day an American gridiron player who happened to be holidaying in Melbourne. An interview disclosed that in a 10-year career with the Green Bay Packers, he had never weighed less than 120 kilograms, never run more than 10 metres at a time in a game - and never touched the ball. He was earning many times more than Bernie Quinlan.
He was a lineman, whose job, as I understood it, was to assume the crouch position, then throw himself, head-first, at a similar-sized and shaped opponent across the ''line of scrimmage'', play after play after play. In attack, it was to try to clear a path. In defence, it was to prevent his opposite from clearing one. Handling the ball was not specifically outlawed; it was just that it never fell his way.
This week, I had cause to wonder what became of this affable giant. The New Yorker published a piece detailing frightening research on the incidence of long-term brain injury among gridiron players. The author, Malcolm Gladwell, estimated that the average NFL 10-year lineman, including his high school and college career and all training sessions, gets hit in the head 18,000 times. In a single training session, one player was hit more than 30 times.
Each hit, Gladwell reports, using University of North Carolina data obtained from sensors in helmets, was at or approaching the level of a minor traffic accident - without seatbelts. ''That's thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage.''
That is not supposition. The New Yorker reports on a series autopsies on the brains of former gridiron players, mostly linemen, and a couple of boxers. Some had died of dementia, some not.
The researcher, Ann McKee, from the Veterans Hospital in Massachusetts, discovered that one who was thought to have had Alzheimer's in fact had a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), described as ''a progressive neurological disorder found in people who have suffered some form of brain trauma''. Every autopsy showed evidence of CTE, meaning that even those who did not die of dementia eventually would have.
In the case of a man who had been a linebacker for 16 years, no microscope was needed. ''There was a shiny tan layer of scar tissue right on the surface of the frontal lobe, where the brain had repeatedly slammed into the skull,'' reports Gladwell.
McKee's research tallied with that of neuropathologist, Bennet Omalu, who diagnosed CTE in a footballer for the first time seven years ago, and since has only once failed to find it in a professional footballer, a 24-year-old running back who has played in the NFL for only two years.
''There's something wrong with this cohort as a group,'' Omalu says in The New Yorker. ''They forget things. They have slurred speech.'' One drove his car the wrong way down a freeway and was killed. The two researchers acknowledge that other factors - steroids, genetics - may apply, and that their sample is unscientifically small.
But another study, by the University of Michigan, of 1000 retired NFL players found the self-reported incidence of dementia in those older than 50 five times the national average. For the under 50s, it was 19 times the average.
There appears to be a warning here for the rugby codes, perhaps also for soccer, where the potential damage done by years of heading the ball has prompted alarms previously.
The relevance of the American research for Australian rules is less clear. Certainly, it fortifies the AFL's campaign to eradicate head high contact by severely punishing even the most accidental form (though some fear that the statutory protection encourages players to go at the ball even more recklessly. This effect also has been observed in gridiron: better helmets have deluded players into thinking themselves invulnerable).
A request by this column to speak to the AFL's chief medical officer about The New Yorker article disappeared into the depths of the gulag. Last night, 36 hours after it was made, its release still had not been franked. Initially, I did not imagine that the AFL had something to hide on this matter, until the AFL started acting as if it had something to hide. Perhaps it just forgot.
The article finishes with a philosophical turn. Players are selected for their ''gameness'', writes Gladwell. Fans love them for it, relish the headlong crashes, salute the crazy-brave. ''What football must confront, in the end … is the fact that there is something profoundly awry in the relationship between the players and the game,'' he writes.
But, he notes, gridiron would not be banned, any more than boxing, with its even more obvious risks. ''There is nothing to be done, not so long as the fans stand and cheer. We are in love with football players, with their courage and grit, and nothing else - neither considerations of science nor those of morality - can compete with the destructive power of that love.''