Wednesday, May 5

Protecting Brains That Matter

I have an incredible friend, a new friend really, though I've known her since we were both smart and generally winsome high school classmates in Appleton, Wisconsin. Today, we are still both smart and generally winsome, I think it's fairly safe and true to say, and we are lucky enough to have rediscovered each other, which I think will almost certainly be a help in getting through the second half-century of life both of us statistically have before us. My friend has indisputably done far more with her innate intelligence than I have; I'm a petty civil servant, and she's a nationally renown neuropathologist. If I dwelt on that statement, I might feel gloomy, so I shan't. Instead, I'd like to talk about what my great new/old friend is doing.

She is doing her best to save brains. You may have seen articles about her work, because it's gained a lot of media attention over the last two years. In fact, a few days ago, she e-mailed me to tell me she'd just finished meeting with the former Surgeon General and the Commissioner of Football, wondering why, given this undeniable achievement, she still felt like the Hometown Girl from Appleton. Yes, she's the one, pretty much the Original One, who's started everyone talking about what's happening to all those professional football players who disappear from the playing field, who get dropped from everyone's roster, after suffering a few too many concussions.

What's happening? Well, they're suffering. Their brains are damaged. You can read about it in the archives of Time and the New Yorker and the New York Times or see my friend interviewed on any one of several network news magazines; the story's been everywhere. It's a sad, sad story, well-told by my friend and dismayingly well-documented. As a result of her ground-breaking work, you can bet there will be changes in the world of professional football and, if we're really lucky, within the world of amateur and youth athletics, too. It had to start with the stars, I guess, because the stars are the ones who command media attention. But eventually, maybe our children will benefit; eventually, maybe we will even stop encouraging our soft-skulled children to play games that simulate violence.

I remember when my son was in grade school. He, along with all his miniscule, adorable friends in the privileged environment of a wealthy little town in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, had been "playing" soccer and "competing" in gymnastics ever since they were all extra-miniscule, super-adorable toddlers. By "playing," I mean standing out in the middle of the soccer fields holding hands with beautiful Rachel, engaged in earnest conversation until an errant black and white ball came flying down the lawn and rolled into the oblivious duo. They looked at each other in wide-eyed wonder and then exulted, loudly enough for all the adoring adults on the sidelines of the abbreviated field to overhear, "We hit the ball!!!"

But in third grade things got serious. They, the boys at least, were deemed big enough and tough enough for YMCA football. Well, Ben wasn't; his nickname at the time was "Stick," due largely to his uncanny resemblance to a toothpick with a wide-mouthed grin pinned lopsidely on top. But his male classmates were, some of them, and soon there was a retinue of 40-pound wonders outfitted in all the regalia of the all-American game. Soon afterward, the mom of one of the new pigskin passers confided to me over regulation coffee, "Susan, I don't think I really like the football deal. The coaches yell at the boys. They shout at them and make them feel bad."

Turns out that wasn't the worst of it.Turns out the yelling is actually the least of what's wrong with having 8 year old boys tackling each other on the hard ground of a Colorado playground. Turns out those big, ugly helmets don't provide adequate protection for the brains we need to read the contracts we're signing and the exemption clauses in our Income Continuation stipulations and our health insurance policies. Turns out nobody really gave this much thought, until my friend the neurologist who loves football and the men who play it came along. She is pretty much their guardian angel it turns out, not just their biggest fan.

Thank you, my friend. Now if only the rest of us would do our part. Like telling our children to jump rope instead of playing football. Really, it's the least and the best we can do.

1 comment:

Annabelle said...

OOooooooooo susanna, i just saw this! Thank you for your post!