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culture sports

Detecting CTE—before it’s too late

<!––>Tom Schad writes about a potential breakthrough in diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease caused by contact sports like football:

So far, the existence of CTE, a neurodegenerative brain disease, can only be confirmed through an autopsy. But scientists have been conducting positron emission tomography (PET) scans of the brains of former football players and military members, looking for patterns in living subjects.

That’s where McNeill [i.e., Fred McNeill, former linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings] comes in.

Four years ago, scientists noticed spots in McNeill’s brain that appeared damaged. More recently, an autopsy revealed the presence of the protein associated with CTE in those exact spots.

Up till now, CTE couldn’t be definitively detected in living patients. That meant you could never be sure if a former player’s symptoms—memory loss, mood swings, depression—were the result of football injuries or some other natural cause. You would have to wait until the individual died and their brain tissue could be sliced up and examined.

But if this new scanning method proves reliable, it could erase any doubt about cognitive symptoms. Such a black-and-white test would make it difficult for NFL players to shrug off the dangers of football in favor of a massive payday.

But it’s not just the pros who would be impacted. PTE scanning could further football as a whole. If this “CTE test” is sensitive enough to detect the disease in its earliest stages, it could accelerate the game’s decline at all age levels. As high school players are tested, they (and their parents) would be confronted with the damage the sport has done to their brains. Families would start to question whether the risks of football justify the rewards.

As young players’ interest declines, a chain reaction could ignite. More and more high schools would shutter their football programs. This means fewer available players at the collegiate level, as well as a diminished quality of play (because there’d be a talented pool of players). Fan interest declines, and Division II and III schools disband their teams. Things continue to accelerate, and in the end, football becomes a niche gladiatorial pursuit, rather than a national pasttime—more like MMA than baseball.

Honestly, that’s what I hope will happen. Football is irredeemably brutal. It’s doesn’t matter how many programs institute tackle-free practices, which concussion protocols are adopted, or what technological wizardry is packed into the helmet. Those adaptations can’t change the fact that the fundamental element of the game—bodies smashing bodies—ruins men’s minds.

This new test might helps force us to confront that fact—now, rather than once it’s too late. ■

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sports Uncategorized

How to fix football.

Football has problems. No, not the protracted labor dispute between the billionaires and millionaires. I’m talking about the grave health threat of concussions and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). A career’s worth of head trauma takes its toll, leaving players with brain damage and devastating emotional instability. As these harmful side effects come to light, the sport’s prognosis grows dim. If football is to survive, we must take player safety more seriously.

The fix

Here’s an idea: build G-meters into players’ helmets to track, record, and broadcast the force of each impact. League doctors would set an acceptable maximum acceleration. When a helmet registers anything greater, officials pull that player–no exceptions. In addition to this acute, one-blow limit, the rulebook could include a cumulative threshold. Once a player reaches his allotment of daily Gs, he rides the bench.

Not only would this preserve players’ health, it would add a new strategic wrinkle to the game. Teams would need to ration their star player’s G-level. If your star quarterback gets hammered in the first quarter, you might shift to a ground game to protect him–and keep him in the game.

The league could even share the live helmet data with fans. Fantasy footballers would gain yet another stat to obsess over. Monday morning quarterbacks would have one more reason to second-guess the coach.

Drawbacks

There are some downsides to such a plan. First, competitive escalation: if a hard hit automatically knocks out a player, teams might start targeting the opposing team’s stars to gain an advantage. My answer for this? Penalize the team that inflicted the blow. Say… automatic ejection for the tackler, plus drastic penalties for the offending team?

Another drawback? Such a system would be expensive. For the pros, that’s not a deal-breaker; the NFL is fantastically profitable and could probably absorb the equipment cost. But what about college ball? High school? Pee-wee? High-tech helmets with built-in, broadcasting G-meters would be a tough sell. As an cheaper alternative, could helmets incorporate shock sensors like the ones the Mythbusters use?

A final “drawback:” the sport would never be the same. The NFL has long celebrated bone-crushing hits, and fans eat them up. Stringent concussion rules might therefore threaten the league’s popularity. But that risk is worth taking. There are too many football veterans whose minds–and lives–have fallen apart.

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games sports Uncategorized

Replacing live sports with video games.

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Sports video games have come a long way, baby. Back in the day, you needed a Ph.D. in modern art just to identify what sport you were actually playing. This red block here blips its way to that green block, and… touchdown! Er, or is it… home run? Oh, sorry, no… uh, birdie? Not exactly lifelike. But fast-forward thirty years or so, and you get this:

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I don’t own a console from the current generation, so screenshots like this one flabbergast me. Pop in a disc, and this is what your XBOX or Playstation will pump out right now. And this from game systems that are already growing long in the tooth. In just a few decades, we’ve graduated from abstract bricks to cartoonish sprites to grotesque polygons to this.

Now, I’ll admit; we’re not at photorealism yet. The bodies lack grit. The collision detection wonks out. The player models wear their faces like death masks, devoid of expression. Sideline characters lurch and jerk like animatronic puppets. But we’re getting closer to true simulation; digital Lebron may seem unhuman–but you can tell it’s him. Virtual Tiger stares back with creepy, soulless eyes—but how’s that any different than the real thing? (Ha! J/K, Mr. Woods.)

So… Here’s my question: what happens when the final hurdles to realism are overcome? When video games can pump out enough pixels to render video indistinguishable from a TV broadcast? When programmers can compose algorithms that bestow faux personality to the players? When developers perfect the stadium details—the crowd’s chaotic swell, a jersey rippling in full sprint, spittle flying from coach’s mouths? When 3D games can project Bill Cowher’s chin straight out into your living room?

Will fans eventually forsake real-world sports for virtual versions? Watching in HD already trumps sitting in the nosebleed section… wouldn’t playing the game be better still? Why settle for mere spectating when you could command life-like athletes to and fro across the pitch? Could video games eventually pose a competitive threat to the major leagues?

It sounds ridiculous. After all, how can “fake” simulations replicate the “real” human drama that sports offer? We fans relish the human-to-human storylines that make sports so fascinating. But aren’t those storylines already manufactured by the sports industrial complex? Twenty-four/seven ESPN coverage and sound bite journalism overhype and artificially inflate the drama. If it’s not real conflict in the first place, why couldn’t it be replicated by my game console?

So… what if simulated sports trumped their live counterparts? What would we lose? “Tradition!” some immediately reply. After all, yanks_slugger_158 hardly belongs in Coopertown alongside Ruth and Mays. Others would fret about our children’s ballooning waistlines. Without toned sports heroes to adore and emulate, our kids would never go outside again. Instead, they’d park their ample posteriors before the idiot box, ’til their fingers grew too pudgy to push the buttons.

Fair enough, but virtual sports might gain us some things, too. We could assuage the national guilt about the lavish wastefulness that surrounds our professional leagues. No more disposable billion-dollar stadiums. No more ridiculous multi-million-dollar contracts for muscle-bound shlubs. We might even (what a concept!) pay our teachers and nurses a fair and proportionate wage instead!

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Top: a healthy brain, with no brown “protein tangles.” Bottom: a brain with traumatic damage caused by football. Read more here.

There’s another guilt-inducing plague that virtual sports could alleviate. For decades now, our culture has condoned–even celebrated–a perverse sort of prostitution. For entertainment, we pay athletes to destroy themselves. Contact sports cripple their bodies and rot out their brains. See, as an example, several recent studies, which suggest that playing football slurries brains to mush. The hockey rink, the soccer pitch, the football field: these are our Coliseums, the players our gladiators. Shouldn’t we demand that these brutal exhibitions stop?

And how better to stop them than to make virtual avatars suffer, rather than flesh-and-blood-and-brain humans. Let digital athletes brave the brain-shocking blows. Let simulated players pump up with poisonous performance enhancers! Problem solved.

At least until the artificial jocks become self-aware. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.


Photo credits: Atari’s Home Run Baseball, via AtariAge; EA’s Madden 2010, via GameDaily. Brain images from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, via CNN.