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The Brady Bunch, Football, and Head Injuries

You are probably saying to yourself, “I see how the last two things are tied together, but what about the Brady Bunch?” I will tie these together – I promise!

Now, I probably date myself by bringing up the Brady Bunch, but alas, I must admit…I did watch the Brady Bunch when I was young (hey, it was all reruns by then and my program options were limited).

I remember this one episode in particular in which Greg (the older, “groovier” version of Greg) was playing high school football against his mom’s wishes. One day she found a huge bruise on his side that he had been hiding from her because he was afraid she’d make him stop playing. I can’t remember how the episode ended (or what compelled me to watch the Brady Bunch at all for that matter), but I do remember Mrs. Brady freaking out about his injury and expressing how she didn’t like football because it was such a rough sport. I also remember thinking Mrs. Brady was a worry-wort and that she should just chill out and let Greg play football.

Wow, have times changed. Now I’m a father of two young boys…ages 6 and 3. As a parent, I can see how having kids makes us kinda wacky with concern over safety issues. I often have to consciously brush aside thoughts that pop into my head about injuries and accidents. I mean, when I jumped on the bed as a kid, I thought it was great fun and had not a care in the world about injuries. When I see my kids trying to jump on the bed, I envision one of them flying off into a dresser and going to the ER for a traumatic brain injury. “No silly monkeys jumping on the bed!” I remind them.

I can say the same goes for football now. Growing up in Texas, I love football (mainly college football since I lost my beloved Houston Oilers all those years ago). I hope my boys enjoy watching football (although I find some guilt in this to for the reasons below…), but I’d really rather them play something safer. A recent cover story by Sean Gregory in Time magazine entitled “The Problem With Football” details some of the latest findings from neuroscientists on what is happening to the brains of football players – and it ain’t pretty.

Of course, football players receive countless injuries in this high-impact sport. Players are getting bigger, stronger, and faster. Despite advances in protective equipment, there is no stopping the violent collisions that are celebrated in the games and in the highlight reels. But head injuries are particularly troubling. What used to be thought of as “dings” and “getting your bell rung” are now known to be serious brain injuries. There’s a protein buildup of tau in these injured brains, “which defines a debilitating disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Common symptoms include memory loss, paranoia and depression during middle age.” This is the hidden story behind those bone-crushing hits as well as, neuroscientists are now finding, behind repeated, jarring hits. This isn’t just a problem in the NFL…college, high school, and even pee-wee football players can be receiving hits that end up causing long-term damage to the brain.
As cited in the article, a study commissioned by the NFL found that ex-pro players over the age of 50 were 5 times more likely to receive a memory-related disease diagnosis than the average person. In a startling figure, players ages 30-49 were 19x more likely to be debilitated than national average.

I have read research indicating that even one concussion can increase the likelihood that a person will experience dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. Multiple concussions can increase this likelihood exponentially. Even the accumulation of multiple but smaller “bonks” to the head can cause severe problems later in life. Thus, people like boxers, snowboarders, skateboarders, mixed martial artists, etc. are at a much higher risk for long-term, debilitating memory and mood problems because of the brain injuries they sustained for their sport. As it happens, I just heard skateboarding legend Tony Hawk joking how he has received so many concussions that he immediately recognizes now when he has sustained yet another one. Many of these athletes are not even professionals – they engage in these activities as hobbies.

So, what can we take away from all of this? Well, for one, be careful in what sport you or your children engage. There may be a very steep price to pay in the long term for injuries sustained in the practice and play of certain sports. For me, I will try to gently steer my kids to sports in which the risk of head injuries is lower (careful not to make it a forbidden fruit that they want even more…). Also, my apologies must go out to Carol Brady. Sorry, Mrs. Brady! You weren’t being such a worry-wort after all. You were ahead of the curve on this one.

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