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Surprising Science

This Is Your Brain On Sports

Athletes may be paid millions, but implicit in the bargain is that ownership of their bodies is no longer entirely theirs.

What’s the Big Idea?

On June 12, 1970, Pittsburgh Pirate Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter while high on LSD: “The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes, sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn’t,” he noted. Five years later, he was traded to the Yankees. Fourteen years later, he was retired and working as a drug counselor in Los Angeles.

A weird anecdote, no doubt, yet it reminds us that drug abuse in sports is not just a momentary debacle that occurred in the summer of 2003, but a cultural phenomenon embedded in the history of the enterprise. Before the widespread dissemination of steroids, professional athletes were using cocaine and amphetamines to enhance performance, and more than one player has suggested that management was complicit: English footballer Albert Dunlop described drugs being handed out in the locker room before matches; American running back Paul Lowe testified that the entire team took steroids at lunchtime or risked being fined.

Clearly, the problem is larger than A-Rod or Mark McGwire or Bill Romanowski. Athletes may be paid millions, but implicit in the bargain is that ownership of their bodies is no longer entirely theirs. For them, winning is not just a financial imperative, it’s a national fixation. “Sports crazy America… is riveted by this,” Mo Rocca told Big Think. “There’s a lot of anxiety about the disappearance of heroes. This has been a very bad decade for institutions, and for the heroes that sit on top of them.”

While consuming toxic substances in order to win is a dangerous and pervasive form of self-abuse, even more alarming is the amount of physical damage sports players are expected to sustain in service of a game. Until recently, football players were rarely benched for concussions, despite the fact that threat of head injury in professional sports mirrors the risk faced by soldiers. 

According to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), the brains of professional athletes are markedly different from those of non-athletes. At the CSTE, neuropathologists study the diseased tissue to better understand the neurodegenerative disorders that arise from the trauma of repeated concussions. Their goal is three-fold: identify risk factors for brain disease, create a diagnostic test to indicate whether it’s present, and find clinical treatments.

Dissection reveals enormous holes and disruptions. Guardian reporter Ed Pilkington described a typical case: “There should be a membrane separating the two ventricles, but it has been so battered by the footballer’s repeated blows to the head that only the thinnest of filaments is left. The two oval holes are the ventricles of the temporal lobe (crucial to memory and learning) and they too are extremely enlarged to compensate for tissue lost from the lobes themselves, another classic sign of having your head bashed repeatedly.”

Forty five athletes have already committed to donating their brains to the center, known as “the Brain Bank.” Eleven football players have been posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy by the CSTE (side effects ranging from daily headaches to dementia), as have several hockey players and one wrestler. 

Why suffer this way? How many times can you get hit in the head, and how many drugs can you take, before your health is destroyed by the drive for a better performance? Chronic disease has been found in the brains of people as young as 21. Steroid use is endemic even among kids. 

What’s the Significance?

Gary I. Wadler, Chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Prohibited List and Methods Sub-Committee and a former advisor to the White House believes that too much pressure is put on athletes to be heroes. “You have to recognize… we have had as many as four percent of high school seniors have used anabolic steroids. As many as two and a half percent of eighth graders have used anabolic steroids at least once. Those are staggering figures,” he says. “Ultimately, we’ve got to look at the implications for our society. Are we condoning the abuse of dangerous drugs to achieve some goal?”

Several institutions are beginning to take steps in the right direction: the N.F.L has donated one million dollars to the Brain Bank, and in January 2012, the N.F.L and the U.S. Army announced that they’re collaborating to create better helmets and padding for soldiers and players — which, if they follow through on the promise, will certainly be a win for us all. 


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