Incredible piece on concussions and dog fighting

A fine way to end the night . . . or begin the morning.

Popular author Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, writes in the latest New Yorker about just how devastating the game of football can be on a player’s brain. And he intertwines it with a brutal discussion of dog fighting. Gladwell, you may have gleaned, is a skilled writer.

Of particular interest to Indiana fans is the part of the story that details two scientist attending a North Carolina football practice. They are able to monitor the numbers coming in from helmets configured to calculate the intensity of hits on the field. IU has a system like this (here’s a story Dann Denny did on it earlier this year), though because Gladwell does not name the system I can’t be certain it is the exact same. But I can’t imagine it differs much.

After the tape session, Guskiewicz and one of his colleagues, Jason Mihalik, went outside to watch the U.N.C. football team practice, a short walk down the hill from their office. Only when you see football at close range is it possible to understand the dimensions of the brain-injury problem. The players were huge—much larger than you imagine them being. They moved at astonishing speeds for people of that size, and, long before you saw them, you heard them: the sound of one two-hundred-and-fifty-pound man colliding with another echoed around the practice facility. Mihalik and Guskiewicz walked over to a small building, just off to the side of the field. On the floor was a laptop inside a black storage crate. Next to the computer was an antenna that received the signals from the sensors inside the players’ helmets. Mihalik crouched down and began paging through the data. In one column, the HITS software listed the top hits of the practice up to that point, and every few moments the screen would refresh, reflecting the plays that had just been run on the field. Forty-five minutes into practice, the top eight head blows on the field measured 82 gs, 79 gs, 75 gs, 79 gs, 67 gs, 60 gs, 57 gs, and 53 gs. One player, a running back, had received both the 79 gs and the 60 gs, as well as another hit, measuring 27.9 gs. This wasn’t a full-contact practice. It was “shells.” The players wore only helmets and shoulder pads, and still there were mini car crashes happening all over the field.

If only I could get close enough to IU’s little black laptop tomorrow to see how many mini car crashes take place.

14 comments

  1. I was just talking about this piece with a friend earlier today. Solid stuff, indeed. We’ve long know football was not a contact sport, but rather a collision sport. Now, we’re seeing (or at least scientists & data crunchers are telling us) that it’s more of a catastrophic impact sport. Football used to just wreck knees, or so common knowledge dictated. Come to find out it also turns brains into mashed potatoes. Somethings gotta give, but there’s no easy answers. Our blood lust won’t allow the rule makers to soften the blows (no matter how hard the defenseless receiver rule or no-touch QB treatment may try to effectuate the play), & the equipment technology isn’t adequately sufficient to prevent the associated injuries. Don’t know where this issue goes, but the answers don’t seem to get any easier with each bit of new information. That said, I gotta wonder what Ray Lewis’ hit on Ochocinco would’ve registered yesterday.

  2. Michael Vick will never take a hit brutal enough to justify what he did to those poor dogs….A guy murders helpless animals and he’s back in the NFL?…Funny how the moral compass always points to where the money flows…Don’t try to sell me on how rough and tough the sport is..Only a coward would allow gentle Golden Retrievers to be locked in cages with starving Pit Bulls trained to rip them to pieces…Do any scientists have laptops with fancy software to measure the pain those animals went through as they were mauled and limb was torn from limb…I wonder the g-forces a Pit Bull can produce as it clamps down and crushes the skull of an animal with no fight in it’s breed..
    Brutal be our hearts for ever letting that despicable excuse for a human being back in the game of football..Vick gets to hear the cheers of the crowd again..I wish he would hear forever the hours upon hours of dogs screaming into the Virginia backcountry where in deep woods the darkest of empty souls served as the only heartless ears for their final wailing pleas ..

  3. The effort to really understand concussions is admirable. Northwestern monitored players in the late 50’s and early 60’s. I saw the helmets but cannot tell you what was inside. Before the advancement of computer technology one only guess that it was pretty rudimentary.
    My father saw dog fights. He said it was pretty brutal. I have seen cock fighting which is disgusting but not even close to dog fighting. As for Vick, while I condemn the activity, he served his time.

  4. I would really like to see the day that this technology is adapted into all football helmets. Not just College and pro but all the way down through the youth leagues.

    Last year my son took a nasty helmet to helmet hit that left him with a concussion and a trip to Riley for overnight observation. While he recovered with no side effects, this data at the time would have been very helpful. We had his helmet with us, so the doctors could look at the impact spot to help determine the force of the impact he took.

    Just this past Sunday during our game, he made a huge hit on the opposite teams running back. The league uses all white helmets with colored stickers. From the front corner of his helmet going three quarters of the way back are red streaks from the other helmet. The impact force broke one of the buckles that secures the face mask to the helmet and broke the snap on his chin strap on that side.

    After the game and Monday morning there were still signs of the hit. Slight bruising on his jaw and chin from the pads and strap. These are two 4th grade kids, both 10 years old. The running back he hit weighs 76lbs, he weighs 83lbs. If they can impact hard enough to create bruising and break helmet parts, the can hit hard enough that monitoring could be beneficial to their long term health.

  5. Mike P,
    I spent many hours at Riley in the 60’s. At that time they used EEG’s for testing. I think that I had six EEGs over the course of two years. After the last test I was told to forget it, I was done playing football. I had two concussions in three days in late 67. I was 19 at the time.
    For what it’s worth, I have had two sons play football but not tackle until they reached 7th grade. Good luck with your son.

  6. Maybe I’m naive, but I’ve heard suggested that the answer might be in going to “soft” helmets -sort of like the old leather ones. You would still have guys cracking their heads together, but if the helmets were made of something more like the racetrack fences (‘safer barriers’) the head wouldn’t be such a weapon. As for the dog fighting, I find it hard to believe that Vick is remorseful for anything more than getting caught. If you’re the kind of person who can enjoy and participate in dog fighting, that deep personality flaw doesn’t just go away. And let’s not forget that he’s far from the only pro athlete involved.

  7. Yeah, ironically it sounds like (there’s also an article in GQ on this) switching from the leather helmets partially caused this problem… it’s the G-forces on the brain from the movement of the impact that causes the concussion, not someone breaking the skull with a hit.

    In the leather helmet days you would never take a hits like that on purpose because it would KO you for sure. You’d like something way softer and would transfer some of the injury from the hit to the shoulders… dunno if there’s a safe way to do that because any increased risk of a spinal chord injury is unacceptable.

    The other question is how long after a concussion a player should be held out… they need more research but it sounds like a week is not enough. Obviously people are finally starting to learn that going right back in the game is not acceptable and is very dangerous.

  8. Jay,

    I am always mixed about him going on the field. I love the game of football and loved it when I played. As a parent, I am of course apprehensive of letting him play.

    I decided before we started this that I would never make him play a sport he didn’t want to, and I would let him play any sport he wanted to. The only stipulation is once he starts the season, he must finish the season.

    He plays football on his own, it is his choice. I always cringe when he goes to make a hit, and I don’t know if that will ever get easier to watch. At the same time though, it is pretty cool to watch him go head to head against a kid that is 50lbs heavier as my boy delivers a hit that stands the other kid up and drives him over on his back.

    Thanks for the well wishes.

  9. Mike and Jay, I had NO plans to comment but enjoyed reading the stuff you wrote. I had a full blown concussion at 17 in high school. The pulling tackle hit me right in the side of my helmet, it was my fault for not seeing it coming and breaking down like I should have (Mike, it was Chad Bates who started for FSU O line in 94-97). I have it on tape, I stood up and did the nestea plunge. I was carried off by an ex Atlanta Falcons trainer and was taken care of well. I slept for almost 20 hours being woken up every 2 and I had NO memory of almost 2 weeks of school work or anything. I shed many tears, it scared me big time. I have an almost 4 year old son and I have had him kicking off of a Tee since he was 2. Never thought I would say that, funny how being a dad changes you. I will not push him to play football, trust me. The human body is so much bigger and stronger every day and the advances in workouts, exercise science and physiology, weightlifting have really had an impact in the hitting on the field. I love the sport, it is a mans sport but I think there will be NO tolerance for helmet to helmet of any kind in the future.

    Just for kicks, anyone remember Chuck Cecil for the Oilers who was banned from NFL? I wonder if he has neck issues, hahaha.

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