By Zach Arnold | May 3, 2012
For more information on The Lou Ruvo Cleveland Clinic Center in Las Vegas, click here to read.
When I watched Ron Kruck’s piece on HDNet about The Lou Ruvo center last December, it was a segment that reminded me just how little we know about the issue of concussions in combat sports. Despite technological advances with MRIs & CT scans, that technology also has a ways to develop from what experts say is currently a ‘black & white’ standard of determining just how much damage a person’s brain has suffered. Eventually, technology will give us a clearer picture of how the brain works, how much damage a concussion really causes, and the full-ranging effects of CTE. Anyone who has had the chance to watch Charlie Rose’s Understanding the Brain TV series knows that we have quite a ways to go.
It is this hunger for knowledge that both excites and scares athletes across all major contact-based sports. American football is the highest profile American sport to deal with the concussion issue — more out of necessity than out of desire. Concussions in soccer is also a growing concern, but the legal stakes have been raised to enormous levels for the National Football League. They are dealing with massive lawsuits from over 1,500 former players who are suing the league on the claim that the league knew about the potential damage of concussions but hid such information from the players. Whether the lawsuits are successful or not, they have certainly proven to be effective in raising awareness about concussions in sports. Roger Goodell, the Godfather of the NFL, is a lawyer. He understands just how much of a liability concern the NFL is facing here. There’s no doubt that concussions, under the umbrella term of ‘player safety,’ will continue to change American football for decades to come.
The suicide of former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson and the revelation that he suffered from CTE came as little surprise. However, Wednesday’s death of American football player Junior Seau shook up the entire football fraternity. Seau, since retirement, faced various personal issues. In the Fall of 2010, Seau drove his car off the road and it immediately led to speculation about the former football great suffering from the effects of brain damage suffered during his illustrious career.
Seau’s death on Wednesday led to an immediate & swift reaction from former football greats, who sought out medical diagnosis about whether or not they, too, are suffering from brain damage and if they are going to suffer the same fate as Duerson & Seau. Read the Daily News article.
- ABC News: A growing link between head trauma, mental illness, and suicide
- Ryan Wooden: Discussion of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy warranted after Junior Seau death
- USA Today: Neurosurgeon says Junior Seau’s death fuels concussion concerns
- The Boston Herald: Evidence about brain damage leading to erratic & violent behavior
- San Jose Mercury News: With Junior Seau death, NFL could be reaching tipping point
- The Philadelphia Inquirer: The debate about a link between CTE & suicide
- Mike Lopresti (USA Today): There is a chill in the air
- John Niyo (The Detroit News): Junior Seau’s sudden loss leaves NFL with a lot to think about
- Jeff Neuman: How Junior Seau’s death reveals growing public awareness of brain damage & concussions
- Andy Staples (SI): Will public sentiment grow to ban violent contact sports due to brain damage?
- John Canzano (The Oregonian): The NFL’s painful day is coming
Already received pathetic PR emails offering doctors to discuss concussions and Seau’s death, like anyone knows anything at this point.
“Members of the media that cover FB, on all levels, need to educate themselves on concussions or TBI, MTBI and their lasting effects. Whether Seau death had anything to do with depression etc the head trauma issue is a giant ticking time bomb for Football. Be educated.”
Jim Trotter, currently a writer at Sports Illustrated and former San Diego Union-Tribute writer, proposed an idea of a national database of concussions throughout various levels of American football (high school, college, and NFL/CFL).
The news of Seau’s death, along with Dave Duerson’s death, reminded me about the recent efforts of The Lou Ruvo Cleveland Clinic center to give free testing to fighters in order to study the impact of brain damage in combat sports. The efforts are to be commended and applauded.
It also reminded me of a former colleague of mine, Ivan Trembow, whom I knew well for many years. He quit writing about MMA because of growing concerns he had over the issue of concussions in combat sports. When Ivan announced his decision, he was met with some cheers but mostly jeers. Hey, fighters are punching each other in the face, so why should they complain about brain damage once they’re retired? They know the inherent risks of being a fighter, right?
On Wednesday night, I brought up the death of Junior Seau and wondered whether or not some of the issues his death highlights (medical testing advances, lawsuits, suicide, behavioral changes) would soon become issues down the road in combat sports, especially Mixed Martial Arts. The response I received for bringing this topic up was nothing short of nasty & vulgar.
“Why are concussions a bigger deal now than they were 10 years ago? Concussions happened in the past and they’re going to happen in the future, so why should people care?”
What I think is illustrative about the negative reaction when one brings up the issue of concussions in MMA is that it reveals the fault lines between the fans, promoters, doctors, and fighters. Fans don’t care how the sausage is made, they just want the sausage. Many didn’t care that PRIDE was engulfed with a yakuza scandal, they just wanted to see PRIDE. The initial reaction many fans first had about the drug usage crisis in MMA was less about health & safety and more about, ‘whatever it takes for fighters to fight, let them do it.’ That perception has changed somewhat but is still prevalent.
The difference now versus the past is that those who are actually making the sausage, the fighters, are starting to find out more about the side effects of the sausage making and their range of emotions extends from concerned to scared. For some, they are pursuing a legal remedy. For others, they simply want better medical testing & health care.
There are a lot of issues to be raised in the near future for major sports organizations like the NFL and for fight promoters in regards to liability. I can’t see how there won’t be future concussion lawsuits filed by former athletes. Whether those lawsuits are successful or not, they will impact the way sports are played for decades to come.
When I addressed this issue (briefly) on Wednesday night, the standard boilerplate response was the same one I always got when I was covering PRIDE’s implosion.
“Do you even like MMA? Are you so cynical about everything MMA? Do you like the fighters? Are you just saying this to be part of the ‘me first’ crowd?”
The answers, of course, are simplistic. I’m not the first person to raise the issue of concussions nor will I be the last. I am a fan of combat sports and will always be a fan. However, I am a believer in everyone knowing more than just what takes place inside a ring or cage. You can be a supporter of the fight game and still gain knowledge of what the pros and cons are for the promoters & the participants. When it comes to discussing concussions & drug usage in MMA, I think it’s a sign of maturity to be open & candid about everything related to medical issues that impacts the health & safety of fighters. Discussing these issues doesn’t make a person morally superior… but it does make them better-informed. I have great respect for those who put their health at risk and compete in the combat sports arena. Don’t those competitors deserve to know what the potential risks are for competition? There should be no fear to learn and discuss uncomfortable truths here. Let the chips fall where they may.
However, let’s not hide in a cocoon and pretend that the issue of concussions in combat sports is going to fade away. With a wave of MMA fighters retiring, we will have a better understanding in the decades to come in regards to what kind of brain damage fighters are having to live with. We will also have a better understanding of what kind of impact these health issues will have on the way MMA is promoted & any future rule modifications. MMA is still a young sport and changing the way the sport is regulated is not out of the question. There is a big picture here and it is a good discussion to have. It is not a discussion to be afraid of nor is it a discussion that should be mocked based on intellectual laziness. Discussing the quality of life for retired fighters is no joke.