03 October 2009

Marijuana, football and brain damage

Young people are frequently warned to avoid marijuana because of the damage it may do to their brains. Whether or not these warnings are justified, I'll leave to another day. My question at the moment is, what if something highly recommended to young people was found to cause brain damage? Say, for example, sports. Or more specifically, a particularly popular sport such as football.

As it turns out, it does. A study of retired National Football League players reports they are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or related diseases vastly more often than the national average for men. For middle-aged men (30 through 49) the rate is 19 times normal. The study is consistent with papers published by the University of North Carolina that found a correlation between N.F.L. football and depression, dementia and other cognitive impairment. That getting hit in the head a lot might scramble your brain is hardly a surprise.

Although these studies cover professional players, we might expect damage is occurring among high school and college players as well. The Brain Injury Association of Arizona estimates there are about 41,000 concussions suffered every year among high school players alone, many undiagnosed and untreated.

So, one is inclined to ask, does this mean the American government will now campaign against young people getting involved with football in the same way it warns against involvement with drugs? Will we see ads of former football players staring vacantly into space and mumbling incoherently while a voice-over ominously intones "he thought quarterbacking in high school was just harmless fun"?

Not bloody likely. Football is the United States' national sport, akin to religion in some parts of the country. The brain-rattling will go on, perhaps with better helmets and more attention to treatment, but it will undoubtedly go on, brain damage be damned.

And the war against marijuana will also go on, no matter how slim the evidence against it. Football is big in American culture and marijuana is bad, at least as far as the reigning powers are concerned, and American culture, like everyone else's, has little regard for consistency.

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