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Headbangers unite – you have nothing to lose but your minds

December 10, 2020

It would cause me no upset if the lawsuit by a number of former professional rugby players who are now suffering from pre-senile dementia dealt a death blow to the sport. But that’s only because I’ve never been a fan of the game.

If people really want to earn a living involving a high risk that their brains will be turned into mush, that’s their decision, just as long as they’re aware of that possibility. The same applies to soccer, to American football and to boxing. I can’t really see how the professional versions of any of these sports can take steps to avoid head injuries without changing their basic nature.

In rugby, all the protocols you can devise can’t undo the damage caused by a head smashing into a solid object, be that flesh, bone or earth. No doubt you can mitigate it by various medical means, but once it’s done it’s done. And if it happens again and again, even once a match, the cumulative damage surely mounts up.

The evidence suggests that if you want to avoid people getting dementia through colliding with solid objects, you need to invent a different game. So goodbye rugby. The same applies to the other sports I’ve mentioned.

It won’t happen, of course. Boxing is still with us, despite the dangers having been apparent for decades. Despite multiple lawsuits in the US, NFL football continues to thrive.

Professional soccer players, according to recent estimates, are two or three times more likely to succumb to dementia than the rest of the population. Whether cases thus far are because players in my generation had to head balls much heavier than they are today is something we won’t discover for another decade or three, when the current crop reach the danger age.

Meanwhile, players will continue to head the ball because there are too many commercial interests at stake that would be threatened by radical changes to the way the game is played.

The irony is that over recent decades we’ve become far keener to enact stringent health and safety regulations in other walks of life, yet we’ve largely let contact sports administrators come up with their own rules. They will only react, it seems, to litigation that threatens to end the sports for which they’re responsible as commercially viable activities.

Will we soon arrive at the point where anyone who wants to play a contact sport on a professional basis has to sign a disclaimer accepting the risk of brain damage and agreeing not to sue if they no longer remember their names by the time they’re in middle age? Quite possible.

Such is the fame and wealth to be gained from reaching the elite that many people, especially those for whom there are limited routes out of poverty, will willingly take the risk. Just as is the case with boxing.

You could, however, argue that there are many non-sporting activities that are just as dangerous. Following politics, for example, which can liquidise the brain in very short order. Working in a call centre, a COVID ward or an illegal gold field. Anyone who lives in Kashmir, Afghanistan or Venezuela surely has a greater chance of an early death than a professional rugby player.

But at the end of the what-about road lies madness. It’s hard to see anything replacing the great contact sports any time soon, even though we have many well-established alternatives – cricket, golf, tennis and athletics, for example. Nothing, though, captures the imagination like games that resemble battles, in which people get hurt, sometimes permanently.

Perhaps we should find some inspiration from an ancient Mesoamerican ballgame I heard about on the radio the other day, in which players used strange parts of the body – their buttocks for example – to bang rubber balls around a stone court. There are unconfirmed theories that the losing side was ritually slaughtered. More exciting than gladiator shows, I should have thought.

But the awkward question that keeps coming back to me as we get ever more reports of former professional sportspeople ending their days as mute shadows of their former selves is the one posed by Maximus in the movie Gladiator, as he raises his bloody sword at the end of yet another lethal contest:

“Are you not entertained?”

From → Social, Sport, UK, USA

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