TMQ Watch: October 10, 2017.

Yes, we’re late. We got tied up on Tuesday.

But, in our defense, TMQ isn’t timely this week either.

Last weekend I attended a ceremonial event, and paid no attention to sports. But how can you miss me when I won’t go away? Please note that I wrote today’s column in advance, not knowing what happened last weekend in sports or current events.

After the jump, 2,000 words, no pictures (except the header), and one subject in this week’s TMQ

…which can be summed up as “Ban youth football.”

We could probably just leave that there and call it a week. But we’re trying to be less lazy and stupid, so we’ll engage a little with TMQ’s shortened column.

Three months ago, Boston University researchers found that 87 percent of all deceased former football players, and 99 percent of former NFL players, exhibited CTE.

We think TMQ has a good point about the nature of this study: “…the only brains studied were those of persons who were very likely to have a degenerative neurological condition”. Basically, the people who were sampled were people who were already suspected of having CTE and agreed to be tested after death.

Autopsying brains is difficult and expensive, and few dying people ask that their brains be studied. Researchers need to obtain a large randomized sample of brains from many people who did and did not play contact sports, and who did and did not exhibit dementia, and that is easier said than done.

So how do we get past this? Would it be a good thing to do this kind of brain analysis as a part of every autopsy? Would this require family permission? And how expensive is CTE testing? And it seems as if there’s a possibility that CTE may be tied to genetics: should we also do DNA testing to verify the presence or absence of CTE genetic markers?

Does this condition develop only in those who play contact sports? Only in those who play football? In anyone who experiences hard impacts to the head and exposure to overpressure, as often happens to soldiers and sailors? Is CTE simply caused by being alive, a chronic condition of decline like so many associated with aging, and will eventually be detected in millions of people?

Well, we know that CTE isn’t limited to just football players: there are documented instances in hockey and baseball players. As for TMQ’s other questions, again, would increased CTE testing during autopsies help resolve these questions? And if CTE testing is expensive, would economies of scale drive down the price? Or do we need to develop better, cheaper tests?

(CTE can only be diagnosed post-death. But what exactly is the process for diagnosing it? Any neuroscientists in the audience?)

…aging former NFL players live longer than other men of their birth years, have fewer cardiovascular problems, suffer less cancer, suffer dramatically less diabetes, and despite the media impression, are less likely to commit suicide than same-aged men.

How much of that is tied to them being in, and maintaining, peak physical condition during their playing days? Perhaps not the “less likely to commit suicide” part, but isn’t that explicable by “former NFL players” frequently having a great support system of friends, fans, and former teammates?

No one wants NFL players to be harmed.

This includes us. We stopped watching boxing partly because it became a cesspit, partly because it stopped airing on network TV, and partly because of the health effects being hit in the head repeatedly had on boxers. We don’t watch MMA because we have the same concerns. And we’re thinking about pulling out of football completely for this reason (and, to be honest, some others).

Honestly, sometimes, we feel like football is the modern day equivalent of Roman gladiatorial combat. Is it worth it to us to continue tacitly condoning this, when all we (mostly) do is put it on as background noise while we do something else?

… most who appeared in the NFL were better off playing than they would have been not playing, even taking into account that pay was much lower in past decades.

Something about TMQ’s “they bought their tickets, they knew the risks, I say let them crash” and “well, they were better off playing than not playing” argument bothers us, though we can’t quite put a finger on what. Maybe part of it is Easterbrook’s argument that adult football players are entitled to assume the risks of the game, while he seems frequently unwilling to allow other adults to choose their own risks.

Youth players are too young to consent to risk, and their adolescent brain cases and necks are more vulnerable than those of adult athletes.

We’d really like to see a medical citation for the second part of that statement.

Researchers led by Robert Stern of Boston University found yet another association between tackle football before age 12, and neurological problems later in life: “The study showed that participation in youth football before age 12 increased the risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy and executive functioning by two-fold and increased the risk of clinically elevated depression scores by three-fold.”

Is it possible, though, that the type of person who is directed (or self-directs) into youth football at that age is already prone to these issues? Is there anything that actually indicates participation in youth football before age 12 causes irreversible physical brain changes?

This and other research tends to show, though cannot be said yet to have proven, that for those who wait until they are more than age 12 to don helmets and play the tackle version of the sport, late-life drop-off in mental faculties was not much different from the norm.

“…cannot be said yet to have proven”. So how do we prove this?

…but don’t start football until middle school and the sport’s neurological hazards are roughly the same as those associated with soccer, diving, and bicycling. Maybe someday soccer, diving, bicycling, and football all will be banned as too dangerous.

Aren’t “neurological hazards” a big reason why parents make their kids wear bike helmets?

If youth tackle football were abolished by legislation—or if parents and guardians refused to allow young children to join full-pads leagues and endure helmet-to-helmet hits—the societal harm caused by football would decline dramatically.

Would this “societal harm” be the “cannot be said yet to have proven” decline in mental faculties late in life?

TMQ goes on for about 250 words minimizing Frank Gifford’s CTE. After all, he was 84 when he died:

Would Gifford really have been better off if he had foregone all the good things that football brought him in exchange for a slight improvement in his odds against late-life mental decline—something that might have happened anyway?

We don’t know, but it makes us kind of uncomfortable that TMQ singles out Gifford, who still has living family members, for this argument.

There have been cases of football players who are not old who exhibit mental debilitation, and such cases are heartbreaking.

This is also a good argument for more study and research. If we can figure out why football players who are not old have these problems, maybe we can reverse them – not just for those football players, but everyone, both old and young. Maybe in our lifetime we will cheat death.

Till age 12, flag football is just as much fun as tackle

Can we get a ruling from a 12 year old on this?

But don’t take my word for it, take Archie Manning’s. He did not allow Peyton and Eli to don pads and helmets till they reached seventh grade.

Question: other than the benefits of physical activity, which kids could get from unstructured play, is there any good reason for children to participate in any kind of organized sport before they reach high school?

And that’s pretty much it. Easterbrook promises a normal column next week, so we’ll be back then.

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