‘There’s Always a Risk’

On March 6, one of the jewels of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby, was run.  To coincide with this, on Friday, May 5, NBC did a story about injury and horse racing.  Specifically, the article begins by mentioning Rajiv Maragh, a jockey with 13 years of professional horse racing experience and 13 years of injury to show from it, including a concussion.  The article then speaks more of horse racing and injury.  True, all sports have injury, but horse racing does not have concussion protocol, as other sports do.  Last year, the Jockeys’ Guild and the University of Kentucky announced a three-year study that seeks to bridge this gap.

“I choose to be a jockey and there’s always a risk of danger,” says Maragh.  However, the Guild can learn how to better protect its athletes, as professional sport leagues have done.

Note: While horse racing and government may not seem to be related, most states do have a racing commission that is “responsible for regulating the safety and integrity of the horse racing industry through the conduct of investigations, prosecutions and via regular monitoring.”  Because horse racing is a revenue earner for states, state commissions also focus on ensuring the welfare of the horse.

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All-American Head Injury

Though many people outside of the southern and western United States may find this surprising, rodeo, involving such events as roping and barrel racing, is a top sport in America.  Beyond these events, when most Americans think of rodeo, they automatically think of one of its most dangerous events: bull riding.  Bull riding and similarly dangerous events, such as bareback riding and saddle bronc riding, can easily result in physical and cranial harm to the competitor.  Therefore, it seems quite discordant that on Saturday, March 18th, Lubbock, TX is having its 4th Annual Brain Injury Awareness Rodeo.

Protect your brain and put your skills to the test with this fun educational event!” says Lubbock Park and Recreation of the event, open to people 4 ages and older.  In fact, the “rodeo” isn’t actually a rodeo – it is a bike-riding educational event, to be held at Safety City, “a unique kid-sized town where school age children learn hands-on the rules of pedestrian, bicycle and traffic safety.”  In New Mexico, another such children’s “rodeo” event will be happening in Albuquerque.

Although calling the event a rodeo may misconstrue its purpose, the name does give notice to the connection between brain injury and rodeo.  Rodeo is one of the most dangerous of popular sports, with riders ten times more likely to be seriously injured than football players. Earlier this year, for example, a 25-year-old professional bull rider who had numerous concussions and suffered from depression and anxiety, likely signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), committed suicide.

However, as the headline of this article notes, rodeo is an All-American sport.  Therefore, it is often connected to politics.  At the public University of Arizona, Rodeo is a club sport.  At Fall Creek and Houston, TX elementary schools, they just planned a rodeo for their students.  And last February, Sylvester Turner, the mayor of Houston, TX, had a Rodeo Kickoff Breakfast, “to highlight the economic and social impact the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has on the city of Houston.”

It is not my place to comment on the legitimacy of Rodeo as a sport, as it is enjoyed by millions and its athletes are aware of its risks.  However, I find it counterintuitive for the government to promote a sport that actually injuries or kills some of its constituents.

10 Seconds to Safety

Combat sports like boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts, by definition, have a high potential of harming the head and brain.  Because of this, in 1985, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) was created to, “protect the safety and well-being of all participants and promote the public confidence and trust in the regulatory process and conduct of public boxing and other combative sport.”   This month, the New Jersey State government approved the testing of a new technology that hopes to make combat sports, well, less combative.  Specifically, NJSACB , which sets the athletic parameters in a state that is home to such combat sports locations as Atlantic City and the Prudential Center, approved the testing of EyeGuide Focus.

EyeGuide Focus, “uses a camera [attached to a headset] to record the action of the athlete’s eyes as they track a cursor that makes a sideways figure 8 on a computer screen.”   Because it is able to track the eye 60 times a second, according to the manufacturer, EyeGuide can detect concussions in only 10 seconds.

This past Saturday, February 18, the eye technology was tested at the Cage Fury Fighting Championships at The Borgata in Atlantic City.  As of February 23, the results of these tests are not available for public view.  On May 20, EyeGuide will again be tested at the Top Rank WBC/WBO Junior Welterweight Championship in Newark.*

* Even though the publicity of this device focuses on the use of EyeGuide Focus in combat sports, EyeGuide has larger applications.  According to the manufacturer, the EyeGuide Focus is affordable, so that it can be purchased for use in a wide variety of settings, from MMA matches to high school sports games (the EyeGuide website has the product listed for purchase at $9,999).

“Play Smart. Play Safe.”

Politics steps aside on Sunday, as Americans celebrate what is essentially a national holiday, of sorts.  At 6:30pm tomorrow, February 5, the New England Patriots will play the Atlanta Falcons in Houston, TX in the 2017 Super Bowl.  Over 110 million viewers  will tune in to watch the game, the halftime show and, of course, the commercials.  (Every year, that number keeps inching closer to the voter turnout.)  However, for Patriots’ fans, there is a looming question: will Nate Ebner, the Special Teams player that suffered a concussion, a head injury, in the AFC championship be on the field?

On January 22, the AFC Championship was held, with the Patriots playing the Pittsburgh Steelers.  It was a victory for the New England Patriots, but not for Ebner, who got a concussion.  Since then, the status of Ebner has been unclear.  Though the Patriots cancelled practice last Wednesday, the roster shows that Ebner would not have been a participant.  On Thursday, January 25, Ebner also sat out.  There are two weeks between the league championships and the Super Bowl, which some see as positive because it gives players an adequate amount of time to “recover” from any injuries.  However, ten days after their win, on February 1, Ebner finally returned to practice, as a limited participant only.

As CBS notes, “Ebner is a fixture on special teams but nothing more.”  Sure, Ebner wants a Super Bowl ring to accompany the Olympic ring he won in rugby six months ago and to accompany the Super Bowl ring he already has, but hopefully he and the team will put that aside.  Ebner and the team need to take the long view.  Maybe he is well enough to play again, but a player’s health and his future ability to help the team is more important than a ring.  As the National Football League’s initiative states, “Play Smart.  Play Safe.”

*** ”With more spotlight on [the] long-term effects [of concussions] to player health, the league instituted protocol to address the diagnosis and management of concussions [in 2009].”  Concussion protocol involves checking for loss of consciousness, slowness in getting up, lack of motor coordination or balance problems, having a blank or vacant look, disorientation and the clutching of one’s head.  Beyond that, there is Return-to-Participation Protocol.

Since instituting these protocols, the rules have been annually updated to add additional protections.  For example, in 2015 rules were instituted, so that there are now medical spotters in the stadium who could, at any time, halt play and remove an injured player.  In 2016, the most important secondary rule was instituted: punishing those who do not follow concussion protocol.  Teams can now be fined $100,000 or more for not following the rule and, “if the commissioner determine(s) a team violated the protocol for a competitive advantage, the team could be required to forfeit a draft pick in addition to fines.”

NHL Commissioner Bettman Denies the Obvious

Hockey is, essentially, thought of as America’s winter sport.  This year, the National Hockey League started its play for the 2016-2017 season, the 100th season of the NHL (99th season of play), on October 12, 2016 with four games in which the Ottawa Senators, the Edmonton Oilers, the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks won.  Since the teams have already started their season, it is relevant now to look at what the government is doing to support safe play for professional and amateur ice hockey players.

This year, on October 6, four members of the Legislative Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to Commissioner Gary Bettman about the issue of CTE, brain injury, and the NHL.  Specifically, Hon. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ). Hon. Gene Green (D-TX), Hon. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Hon. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), wrote to Bettman, “to request information on the National Hockey League’s (NHL) policies and procedures for the prevention and treatment of concussions and related head injuries…. [as] there is significant scientific evidence to support a link between the types of concussive and subconcussive hits inherent to the game of hockey and brain injury.”  (It seems evident to me that having your head hit repeatedly thoughout the season will result in head trauma.)  The Committee members also noted that participation in contact sports as a youth may increase the likelihood of developing CTE.

In response, on October 24, Bettman wrote a letter to the Committee that stated the National Hockey League/National Hockey League Players’ Association is very concerned about the health of its players.  Prior to this season, for example, the NHL updated its concussion protocol so that it is now mandatory to remove an athlete from play if the coach sees that the player has been physically or neurologically hurt and to then get the player evaluated by a certified athletic trainer.  However, the Committee says that Bettman’s letter of response sounds, “a little bit like the tobacco industry, when it comes to linking concussions with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).”

Ironically though, just as there are some Congress members who are smokers, annually there is a Congressional Hockey Challenge.  Begun in 2009, “The Congressional Hockey Challenge is a 501(c)(3) organization committed to ensuring that the incredible and dynamic sport of ice hockey is accessible to everyone who wants to play.”  On the Congressional games website, one can note that the game is played for lawmakers’ enjoyment, yes, but also to benefit charity.  This year, the game was played on March 2nd and had five Congressmen on the ice.  Even Bettman, who criticizes Congress, as the above paragraph notes, attended the event in support of the team and the cause.

Personally, just as I believe should be true for all other sports, I do not believe it should be the role of Congress to determine the rules of professional sports, especially one that they enjoy themselves.  Education is the key.  Players need to be informed, by the team and by former players who have suffered the horrible lasting effects of brain injury, of the possible consequences of violent defense in the game and post-game fights.  More so, the National Hockey League needs to fully enforce its concussion/head injury rules.

“Concussion. Oh, oh!” says Trump

Beyond commenting on the “softening” of the NFL, Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for President has essentially ignored those with brain injury during his campaign.  Last week in Florida, though, Donald Trump spoke of brain injury at a rally in Florida when, “a woman who had fainted [during a Trump rally]… returned to the crowd.”  Commenting on her return, Trump said, “That woman was out cold, and now she’s coming back.”  While there is nothing wrong with that statement, he then returned to a topic he spoke of earlier in his campaign: namely, he spoke of the “softening” of the NFL, with its new post-concussion regulations.

Through continual blows to the head, NFL players are prone to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).  Harry Carson, a former Hall of Fame linebacker for the New York Giants who developed CTE, said in response to Trump’s views, “Once the brain is injured, you [can] never recover… So to make light of it, there’s a certain amount of ignorance that’s there.”  Carson also noted that many children look up to and try to imitate the actions of NFL players, which may lead to concussions and other brain injuries in them.

Political commentators always note when a candidate changes his or her views on a topic.  Trump, however, has stayed consistently pro-neurological disorder on this subject.  This opinion, though, expresses a disregard for Americans, merely for his entertainment.

Rio Olympics End: A Look Back at (Para)lympians

The 2016 Olympic competitions in Rio ended this weekend.  Specifically, the Paralympics which began on September 7th, concluded on Sunday, September 18th.  Now that the games are over, I believe it is important to acknowledge the individuals who demonstrated their remarkable athletic skills in both the Olympics and the Paralympics.

The first athlete to have the drive, and with particular training, the ability, to compete in the general Olympics, in spite of his disability, was George Eyser in 1904.  Eyser, an American gymnastic who had a wooden leg, finished the games with three gold, two silver, and one bronze medal.  Eyser and other disabled athletes at the time did not compete in the Paralympics, as the Paralympics was not an athletic event until 1948 and took much longer to become the international sporting event it is now.  However, once the Paralympics came to be, according to various sources, at least fifteen athletes have participated in both the Paralympics and the Olympics.  In 2008, two Paraympians participated in the general Olympics, held in Beijing.  One, an amputee following a car accident at the age of 17, South African swimmer Natalie du Tolt, became the first amputee to qualify for the Olympic Games since 1936, while the other, Natalia Partyka, who was born without a right forearm, competed in table tennis.  (Partyka also participates in the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Rio Olympics.)

In 2012, South African Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who had earned multiple gold medals in disability-specific sporting events, qualified and placed 16th in the 400 meter run in Track & Field at the general Olympics, becoming the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics.  (Pistorius and his Olympic accomplishment would be laudable if, in 2014, Pistorius hadn’t been convicted of murdering his girlfriend, South African model Reeya Steenkamp).

The International Paralympics Committee has a list of “qualifying disabilities” for the Paralympics.  Although disabilities that result from a brain injury may be thought more suitable for the Special Olympics, three of these qualifying disabilities specifically apply to brain injury – hypertonia, ataxia, and athetosis.  Hypertonia is the, “abnormal increase in muscle tension and a reduced ability of a muscle to stretch, due to a neurological condition, such as cerebral palsy, brain injury or multiple sclerosis.”  Ataxia is the “lack of co-ordination of muscle movements due to a neurological condition, such as cerebral palsy, brain injury or multiple sclerosis.”  Athetosis is “generally characterized by unbalanced, involuntary movements and a difficulty in maintaining a symmetrical posture, due to a neurological condition, such as cerebral palsy, brain injury or multiple sclerosis.”  Additionally, other paralympians may also have had a brain injury as a result of an injury that affects their neurological functioning, such as a car accident, though it is inappropriate to make this assumption.

It is a positive sign that the International Paralympics Committee recognizes that disabilities, particularly neurological conditions, don’t necessarily break one’s drive for success in whatever their passion may be and prevent them from competing in athletic events.  Still, there is government ignorance that must be dealt with; for example, the Russian Secretary General of the Russian Paralympics Committee, Andrei Strokin, said that an individual competes in the Paraympics, “because often for a disabled person it is the only chance of self-realization and achieving something in life”.  I think that the above list of athletes proves him wrong.

Money or Safety: Who Wins?

Mixed Martial Arts combines the skills needed in wresting, kickboxing and jiu-jitsu into one violent sport.  In this century, MMA has gained popularity and consequently been legalized in most of America.  This past week, the New York legislature, Governor Cuomo and the State Athletic Commission entered the cage.

While MMA matches have been going on in New York for some years, legalization means that there will be regulations.  Specifically, these regulations include classifying 31 Acts that constitute a foul in the arena and would result in “disqualification from a mixed martial arts contest or exhibition… as determined by the referee.”  Five of these fouls specifically involve violence to the brain: Butting with the head, striking to… the back of the head, kicking the head of a grounded opponent, kneeing the head of a grounded opponent, and spiking an opponent to the floor surface on his head or neck.  Other rules are not specifically directed to the head, but could easily result in head trauma, such as “attacking an opponent on or during a break”.  Additionally, “New York [is] to Require $1 Million Brain-Injury Coverage for Mixed Martial Artist,” to be provided by the promoters.

However, the safety of the athletes was not directly the reason of the legalization… it was the money.  It is estimated that legalizing MMA will bring $140 million to New York in economic growth.

In covering this story, Forbes magazine notes that, “insurance doesn’t provide for fighter safety.  It provides compensation after fighter safety has failed.”  (On the other hand, the NYS Athletic Commission says it, “has taken another step toward ensuring the health, safety and integrity of its athletes and event.”)  Some people still want the sport banned.  Currently, the State is seeking comments from the public on this issue.  The proposed legislation can be found on this link and comments can be submitted for review until August 27, 2016.

Conventions Are Staged, Too

 

DaPresident Dana White delivers a speech on the second day of the Republican National Convention on July 19, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18.na White, the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is not an athlete, but he works in athletics.  He is not involved in politics, but yesterday he spoke at the Republican National Convention.  And Dana White doesn’t have a brain injury, but he makes sure other people do… And it’s with the help of Donald Trump that he can do this all.

In a 4 minute speech, White used the knowledge he acquired from acting as a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) promoter, to promote Trump for President.  He describes Trump as his friend, noting that, “Just for the record [he] has nothing to do with my business.”  (To counter that statement, know that the first 2 UFC fights were fought at the Trump Taj Majal, and Trump continues to host UFC events at his Atlantic City casino.)  He then goes into Trump’s three characteristics that will make him a great President.*

When UFC fighting first came out, in 1993, it was considered a blood-sport.  The description of the sport is not simply rhetoric, as, after time in the ring, fighters drip with blood.  Last year, Wanderlei Silva, a former fighter, claimed that the UFC fixes its games.  (World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. admits to fixing their games.)  However, if we accept the games as being fixed, that doesn’t make them any safer.  For example, the comparatively tamer World Wrestling Entertainment is being sued by more than 50 former fighters for the brain trauma they suffered in the sport.  Since the sport is essentially “fake”, being scripted and choreographed, the WWE is “directly responsible for wrestlers’ injuries”, according to the lawsuit.

According to a study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, about one-third of professional MMA matches end in knockout, indicating a higher incidence of brain trauma than boxing or other martial arts.  “The researchers [of this study] at the University of Toronto proposed introducing rules like in boxing where a fighter gets a 10-second count and evaluated after a knockdown. They also proposed more training to help referees to identify fighters who are defenseless or have lost consciousness so they can stop fights more quickly.”  This year, the UFC extended its partnership with the Cleveland Clinic in the “Professional Fighters Brain Health Study”.

Yes, the UFC is trying to better its sport, to prevent head injury thereby allowing athletes to stay in the sport longer.  Technically, Trump is supporting this investigation.  However, do you think that the man who likes to see head collisions in football wants to make the UFC safer?  Will the sport continue to be as popular if its rings are not filled with blood after a fight, thereby decreasing his game sales?  Assuming the UFC is here to stay, Trump needs to think about his point of view.  It’s one thing to except that a sport is going to happen, it’s a whole other thing to give it a place to happen.

(Currently, in combat sports, there is a call from some for fighters to toss away their gloves and fight bare-handed.  That call sounds awful and horribly unsafe, and would increase hand injuries.  For the head, bare-handed fighting is actually safer (safer, not safe).)

*First, White says that Trump has excellent business instincts, presumably talking about his instincts with the UFC – even though, as White said, “[Trump] has nothing to do with it.”  Second, Trump is a hard worker.  Third, Trump is a loyal, supportive friend.  Being a good friend is a great feature, but I’m not sure how it applies to the presidency, though there was talk about Trump buddying up with Putin.

America’s Pastime Hopes to Make Concussions a Problem of the Past

He ran for the ball, knocking head-first into a concrete wall in a game versus the Washington Senators at Washington’s Griffith Stadium.  He then lay on the ground, unconscious, for five minutes.  Eventually, he arose, shook off the trauma and returned to play.

Such a story as the one above seems unfathomable in current athletics.  Now, if a player is hit on the head and falls unconscious, he would never be permitted to return to play immediately and, most likely, would be taken to the hospital for neurological testing.  However, this is what happened to America’s famed baseball player for the New York Yankees, Babe Ruth, in 1924.

Compared to many other sports, baseball does not have a high concussion rate.  Between ten to twenty players are put on the disabled list yearly because of concussions.  However, even one concussion is one too many.  Most prone to concussions are outfielders and catchers.

Recently, this was brought to my attention because of the story, Ex-Met Josh Satin explains why retiring is ‘the right thing’ after suffering head injuries.  Specifically, while playing for the Louisville Bats, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, Satin collided with his team’s third baseman, as both were going for a pop fly.  After being unconscious for five long seconds, Satin says he had a “weird feeling” and later was “never the same”.  He further stated that his depth perception, once his best skill, never fully recovered.  “The ball was always in a different spot than I thought.”  (Officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Satin sat out most of last season.)

Similarly, in December 2012, Toronto Blue Jays’ utility player Ryan Freel, the first pro-baseball player diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) who had to retire from playing the sport because of his injuries, committed suicide.  In 2013, Freel’s family donated some of his brain tissue to Boston University for study.  Though Freel’s behavior after his accident pointed towards CTE, he was not officially diagnosed until this postmortem study.

Dr. Robert Stern, co-founder of the Center of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, said, “I cringe [whenever] I see two guys going after the same ball.”  The MLB has said, “[it] will remain proactive on concussion and head injuries.”  Home plate collisions are no longer allowed and, in 2013, the MLB said it was instituting educational programs and rule changes to protect from concussions.  The prior year, the MLB mandated that any player who suffers a concussion must be put on the “disabled list” for at least 7 days.

This year, Major League Baseball established a lobbying office in the District of Columbia.  Lobbying is not new for the MLB, as they have always spent time and money lobbying, most notably in the 1998 – 1999 seasons when they spent $1.6 million on it.  (In comparison, last year the MLB spent about $320,000 lobbying.)  The office is run by Josh Alkin, a lawyer who, before the appointment as Vice President of Government Relations in this office, had been handling issues relating to the MLB for 15 years at the firm BakerHostetler.  In 2013, the MLB also stated that it aims, “to remain proactive on concussions and head injuries.”

I don’t think there is a way to entirely eliminate concussions from baseball but the MLB has instituted mandatory educational programs and certain changes to the rules to minimize these injuries. It is a good sign that the MLB, as of this year, has a lobbying office in the country’s capital to address a wide range of key government-facing issues including player safety.  With these steps, the MLB hopes to eliminate some concussions, but still keep the excitement of watching a game of America’s pastime.