Ray Lewis 'celebrates' his super bowl victory yesterday. - Photo via NFL.com
The NFL was willing to address the issue of concussions in several features before the Super Bowl yesterday, including an interview with President Barack Obama. What cues should Dana White and the UFC take from NFL, given the possibility for head trauma common to both sports.
Like most people who have followed the ‘concussion crisis' since its inception, it's been difficult to track every new development. Each recent, and often tragic, story peels back yet another layer of a reality that continues to shelter as many questions as answers. First we assumed concussions were synonymous with a temporary loss of consciousness. Now we understand them to be merely proxies, hiding behind a silent cascade of neurochemical events in which toxic protein deposits strangle cells to death in the parts of the body that mold, and shape the mental landscape we call ‘identity'. We assumed these events took time, and that players were prone to suffering only later on in life. Now we know these neurochemical events, which manifest themselves in Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, can occur before you're even eligible to vote.
President Barack Obama, in response to a question asked of him before the Super Bowl, expressed hesitation about sending a potential son to football practice, adding "But as we start thinking about the pipleine, Pop Warner to high school to college, I want to make sure we're doing everything we can to make the sport safer and that means the game's probably going to evolve a little bit."
For the NFL, this ‘evolution' has been slow*. The league has had to contend with almost 200 lawsuits involving concussions over the past several years, including the high profile ‘wrongful death' lawsuit against the NFL by the family of the late Junior Seau (claiming there was an explicit connection between his CTE ‘diagnosis' and his suicide). And anytime Roger Goodell has to address the issue, he has to walk a very tight rope, unable to admit any sort of culpability without pedaling any sort of unscientific skepticism.
However, Goodell has done the things that the UFC should be highly interested in (and following). Just recently the NFL donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for Brain Injury Research. More importantly, the NFL has been an avid supporter of the Zachary Lystedt Law (Lystedt was a 13 year old boy who came close to being fatally wounded by a concussion during a game that was prompted by second impact syndrome; in the days that followed he could only communicate by blinking), attempting to get each state on board with said legislation (only 40 states have signed it into law), which treats the process of dealing with players who may be exhibiting concussive-like symptoms with the diligence it deserves (getting back on the field after a concussion requires the approval of a medical professional with this legislation).
Just as importantly has been the promise of research. Just a couple of weeks ago, scientists figured out how to locate the presence of these poisonous protein deposits by using a dye (called FDDNP) that would bind to the normal tau proteins. As CTVnews reports:
"The idea was the more tau plaques the men had in their brains, the more the FDDNP would bind to it and be picked up by the PET scans. The researchers also took scans of equivalent healthy men to compare the results. They found the NFL players who had experienced a greater number of concussions had higher FDDNP levels than the healthy men. As well, they also had higher levels of FDDNP in the regions of the brain that control learning, memory, behaviour, emotions, and other mental and physical functions."
Such findings are consistent with where these harmful protein deposits have been identified in the autopsied players with CTE. It's a major find, and one that's allowed a (sort of) preliminary diagnosis of CTE in live patients.
But the greatest concern lies not in what we see in NFL players, but in what we don't see. After all, NFL players make up a very small percentage of people that play contact sports, which is what makes the situation with pop warner, and college football so much more disconcerting. A situation owed, as Paul Solotaroff in the latest issue of Rolling Stone points out, to mere physiology: by the age of four, a kids' head is almost fully grown, however the muscles around his/her neck have not matured and are therefore at a greater risk of whiplash damage (this also explains why females are especially at risk). Such a reality is what led to Dr. Robert Cantu's frightening recount of a nine year old pop warner player who had trouble remembering names, and performing simple cognitive tasks for almost a year.
Dana White wants the UFC to be the biggest sport in the world. And that's fine. Unlike others, I don't fault him for his lofty ambitions. It's precisely that ambition that has brought live MMA to fans across the world in places we simply wouldn't have imagined would get the chance to see a show ten years ago. But if you want to sit at the big kid's table, you can't still be sleeping with a mobile above your bed, and sometimes MMA still looks like it's strapped to a onesie. And so this means being responsible, and socially conscious. It means being a client for ImPACT, taking part in vital research, and it most certainly means not asking your fighters to compete a month after suffering a brutal knockout loss, as DaMarques Johnson did in his back to back fights with Mike Swick, and Gunnar Nelson.
If the UFC expects to contend with with the NFL's popularity, it needs to think hard about what threatens it. Nobody is listening to Dion Sanders. They're listening to Dr. Robert Cantu, and Dr. Ann McKee. The astute point, that it's not hard to imagine a sport as popular as football being marginalized when you consider how popular boxing and horse racing were early in the 20th century, cannot be overstated. Of course, brutality and animal cruelty weren't the only reasons for their decline, but these are factors all the same.
In a sport that relies on individuals, business is best served when individuals grow up thinking they can be the next Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, or Jose Aldo. As opposed to thinking they'll be the next Dave Duerson, or Junior Seau.
Now for the shocker: none of this is enough to make me stop watching MMA. Some of this stems from the understanding that we accept all sorts of risks, regardless of profession. Some stems from the understanding that concussions alone cannot explain suicidal, or violent behavior (professional athletes are as bound by the violent mechanics of contact sports as they are by the drugs that are supposed to help them cope, both legal and illegal). Some of this stems from being a reluctant lunatic. And yet some stems from a small story about the 26th President of the United States.
In case you haven't heard the story already, Theodore Roosevelt took part in dealing with football's 'violence crisis' during the 1905 season in which 18 college and amateur players were killed. His presence helped reform the game to end some of its more brutish rules, while instituting new ones that helped spread the game out, such as the forward pass. When Bob Green asked historian John J. Miller how to regard President Roosevelt, Miller replied: "he was football's indispensable fan". MMA, like football, needs more indispensable fans.