As sports are ever evolving, so are the precautionary measures to prevent injury. Concussions have become one of the most popular topics in sports today. However, our knowledge and understanding of concussions has not always been this in depth. It took irreversible brain damage on numerous athletes for any preventive measures to be put in place. Concussions were nothing but folk lore up until about the last twenty years. All head injuries were viewed as nothing more than that. Nobody realized how serious the effects of these head injuries would be.
Concussions are defined as, “An injury to a soft structure, especially the brain, produced by a violent blow or impact and followed by a temporary, sometimes prolonged, loss of function. A concussion of the brain results in transient loss of consciousness or memory. ”(Dictionary). These horrific injuries were happening to everyone, superstar athletes included. Stars such as Muhammad Ali, Lou Gehrig, and Chris Benoit were affected. At the time of their super-stardom’s they and medical personal around them didn’t realize how fatal these head injuries would become.
It took over thirty years for many of these athletes to discover the unfortunate consequences of their head traumas’. In the 1930’s there weren’t too many things more popular than the New York Yankees. They had some of the greatest players this game has ever seen. Players like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig were larger than life to many people. Lou Gehrig was the face of the franchise, New York, and baseball for many years. But on Independence Day 1939 Lou Gehrig abruptly announced his retirement at the age of 36.
This speech would become one of the most iconic moments in sports history. At the time all people knew was that Gehrig was suffering from a debilitating illness known as ALS. ALS, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was a debilitating illness that caused paralysis and loss of motor function. Very little was known about ALS besides it had a short and painless life expectancy. Unfortunately this was not the case; ALS is an incredibly painful way to die. There is now reason to believe that Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS, may not have been Gehrig’s cause of death.
Some scientists now believe that Gehrig may not have had ALS at all, instead brain injuries caused by concussions. “Doctors at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Mass. , and the Boston University School of Medicine, the primary researchers of brain damage among deceased National Football League players, said that markings in the spinal cords of two players and one boxer who also received a diagnosis of A. L. S. indicated that those men did not have A. L. S. They had a different fatal disease, doctors said, caused by concussion like trauma that erodes the central nervous system in similar ways. (Shwarz). Coincidently Gehrig suffered numerous documented concussions in his career in addition to many undocumented ones. Gehrig also prided himself in playing every day, many times with injuries. He was known as “The Iron Horse” for his 2130 consecutive games played. Clearly the combination of numerous concussions and no off days for fifteen years was not ideal. Gehrig’s true cause of death may never be discovered but with continued research there may be many breakthroughs on causes of ALS and ways to reverse the fatal prognosis.
Muhammad Ali, one the greatest boxers of all time, was merely unstoppable throughout his career. He was one of the most feared men on the planet and his personality in and out of the ring was unrivaled. His grace in the ring and his “Ali shuffle” made him a must see for all boxing enthusiasts and many casual fans. Along with his “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” motto, he was idolized. Perhaps his only weakness was his inability to leave the sport he loved so dearly. Ali fought well into his thirties, suffering many of his very few losses during this time period.
Unknown to Ali was the seriousness that these added fights and subsequent blows to his head would have on his health. All was well for Ali in retirement until 1984 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome. His prognosis sent shock waves through the boxing community and would forever change people’s views on concussions. Parkinson’s syndrome is caused by severe head trauma over a sustained period of many years and can also be obtained naturally. In Ali’s case boxing was the cause. He underwent a multitude of tests at the renowned Mayo Clinic so scientists could get a better understanding of his illness.
They discovered that, “his Parkinson’s Syndrome was likely caused as the result of repeated blows to the head which irreversibly damaged his brain stem. Ali’s case was non-organic in nature; his affliction had its roots in boxing. ” (Medina). Up until this point there hadn’t been any prominent athletes linked to concussion related illnesses. There was now a face to associate with concussions in sports. Perhaps the most startling of all concussion related stories is that of wrestler Chris Benoit. Benoit was one of the biggest stars in the WWE.
But on June 22, 2007 Benoit’s legacy would be re-written. It would become the most serious crime to date involving concussion illnesses. Over a three day period Benoit murdered his wife and son and subsequently hung himself. It was initially believed that Benoit’s killing was a result of roid-rage because of steroids found in the home. But upon further investigation an additional and perhaps larger reason was found to be the cause. Julian Bailes and his team of the Sports Legacy Institute sought the potential real cause of Benoit’s insanity.
What they discovered was quite startling. “Benoit’s brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient. ”(ABC News). They revealed that the cause of this brain damage was a life time of concussions while in the wrestling ring. Bailes and his research team revealed that this elevated brain trauma caused Benoit to develop severe dementia. It’s unfair for Benoit’s dementia to be used as an excuse for the murder of his family but it’s certainly a leading cause. As it stands today our knowledge of concussions has increased drastically.
We now know how to properly diagnose and treat concussions. With that said, this greater knowledge of concussions has led to a flood of past concussions and concussion related injuries. Concussion related ailments have now sprung to the forefront of contested topics in sports. Athletes from all sports have begun coming out and sharing their story of a concussion plagued career and their now unfortunate health situation because of it. Perhaps the most talked about sport is football. Football has long been the most physical sport with players using their helmets as weapons without thinking twice.
In the past players didn’t have a proper understanding of what these head traumas would do to them. These same players are now expressing their regrets to give the younger generations a greater knowledge. Many players are being diagnosed with CTE, causing them severe anguish and possibly leading to suicide for some. “Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is a neurological disorder stemming from repeated head trauma that has been identified in several deceased NFL players. CTE can lead to erratic behavior also associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. ”(Sando).
Most recently former NFL pro bowler Junior Seau took his own life. In the coming months we will find out the true cause of death but it’s widely believed that concussion related injuries will be the culprit. It’s unfortunate to see so many former world class athletes affected by debilitating injuries at such a young age because of their own professions. It is understandable for all sports, from professionals to little leaguer’s, to be concerned about concussions in their sports. All sports are now implementing new revolutionary rules because of the overwhelming cases of concussion related injuries.
Without change they’d be endangering the well-being of all athletes and potentially the future of their sports. But fortunately wide spread changes have begun. Each major sport over the last decade has upgraded their equipment to meet government regulated standards. For sports that use helmets this was essential. The NFL has instituted many new rule changes such as no helmet to helmet contact and eliminating hits on defenseless players. Anyone in violation is subsequent to substantial fines. Similar changes now exist in hockey and the NHL. The days of taking a run at an opposing player’s head are now over.
Heavy fines and suspensions also apply to these offenders. Last year the MLB instituted an automatic seven day disabled list for any player diagnosed with a concussion. In all sports thorough concussion tests are now required for any athlete of any sport to return to their respective playing field. Without these wholesale changes the sporting world was headed down a dire path filled with horrible consequences. As is the case for many issues in this world it took countless victims for a needed change to be made. Without the donations from many of these athletes our knowledge of this issue would still be in its very early stages.
However far society and science advance in our understanding of concussions it is important to not lose sight of people like Muhammad Ali, Lou Gehrig and countless others who were affected. Hopefully because of these athletes we can continue in our science and research and discover even more in depth answers. There will also need to be continued rule changes to go with the changing times. It’s only fair to say that we will continue our evolution and to hope for future generations to be free of serious concussion related illnesses.