The Concussion Problem And Thinking About Solutions for MMA

This Fan Post was promoted to the front page by Nick Thomas.

First thing's first: Brent has been doing a fantastic job highlighting the physical risks associated with MMA. In particular, the serious issue of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. If you're still not convinced of this growing concern, none other than The New Yorker has recently asked the provocative, yet increasingly valid question: does football have a future? When asked how many players in the super bowl likely suffer from incipient dementia, one doctor in Ben McGrath's piece guestimated 20% (an estimate he called "conservative"). "But that's football. All they do is play chicken at high speeds. An MMA fight can be won without even throwing a punch", one might say. So can Women's college hockey, and yet that sport has a higher concussion rate than the NFL, with explanations ranging from their weaker necks, to "greater honesty in self-diagnosis". What might studies on MMA's athletes reveal? Whatever those studies reveal, it likely won't be something Dana White can stick on one of his "MMA is the safest sport" soundbites.

But let's face it. We want our calculated violence, and our graceful brutality. We want to see the slow motion replay of Vitor Belfort getting knocked out by a front kick. We savor those 'impact of the punch' images when fighters look like their faces are stuck in front of a jet propeller. We want to rewind Hardy getting torched by Condit's left hook, while Robert Downey Jr. raises his arms next to the offended faces of Jude Law and Guy Ritchie. So how do we raise the alarm without scaring away the tenants? What can be done? Is there something that can be done? Can we, the fans, actually play a role in this discussion? First thing's first.

Raise awareness. The Age of Social Media has its benefits. Simply clicking a "like" button can document your awareness, and that awareness can echo throughout your social network. The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University is a  valuable resource, and as far as I know, it's also one of the most ambitious projects relating to the study of CTE. Listening to Greg Jackson's cheery outlook on Arlovski's future is only slightly disheartening. Arlovski is a grown man who must make his own choices. We can accept that, however, without resorting to mawkish platitudes of redemption. But this isn't about Arlovski. This is about MMA's future athletes. With the sport growing, there needs to be concern for the health of its youth. One of the things I highlighted in my previous fanpost about this issue was that children under 18 are more susceptible to long term damage in the case of multiple instances of brain trauma. Carmen Roda, a youth football coach out of Connecticut, has players, parents, and coaches all take concussion education courses as part of his football program. Something like this for MMA camps would make for a worthwhile endeavor. Any little bit helps, from reduced sparring, to making sure precautions are taken in the invent of trauma induced during training. 

Follow the Leaders. CTE is the big issue, but there are no tests that measure for it except through an autopsy. We can't locate the fire, so we've gotta track the smoke. The NFL has what's called an ImPACT Test for the 329 players in its draft. Part of the test involves small tasks, like remembering the position of X's and O's to gauge memory, and documenting colors with the word they're associated with to measure visual acuity. While I don't know if they exist, I'd imagine simple "how are you feeling?" questionnaires would prove to be useful. Questions like 'Do you ever find yourself feeling suicidal?', or 'Do you experience sudden bouts of despair?' will likely have varied answers as a player suffers further brain damage since mood disorders are a common side effect of onset dementia, and CTE. Perhaps these tests can be administered by athletic commissions for MMA fighters every five bouts? Or in a case like Arlovski, these tests can be administered on the basis of the amount of damage the fighter has suffered, so if you've been knocked out in your last two fights, athletic commissions require that you take them. Camps for fighters that fail these tests can perhaps be required to either prohibit sparring, or reduce it. And ignoring such protocols can allow them to be held liable in the event of a serious injury.

There's a strange timidity I sense whenever I read MMA fans react to this issue. Some of it is due to ignorance, sure. Not everyone knows much about CTE, and even less have a sense for its significance. But others understand the issue just fine, and yet aren't convinced of the attention this topic deserves. It's as if they'd prefer to postpone talking about it while MMA is in its 'almost mainstream' stage, as if negative attention will cause it to suddenly crumble. Is that what its critics want? To wait for MMA's version of Terry Long? The Pittsburgh Steeler that drank antifreeze as a result of the damage done to his brain playing football? There's no disconnect between correlation and causation here. The statistics on brain damage and its connection to depression are as revealing as they are frightening.

One of the great (and worst) things about MMA is that it its media, its fans, its fighters, and its promoters exist in one great big echo chamber. The digital landscape of the internet is our primordial soup, and like some bastard version of Murphy's Law, anything that can be bitched about, and counterattacked, will be bitched about, and counterattacked. Even the dumbest whispers, like judge Douglas Crosby's justification for his Penn/Edgar 1 scorecard on the UG, can reach the top. The criticism of MMA judging has caused Keith Kizer to actually step forward to address it, and none other than Dana White himself has given internet trolls the oxygen of publicity. The power of twitter has gone as far as influencing UFC's very matchmaking. But let's forget about lame boycotts toward 'undesirable' matchmaking. We're in a unique position, I think, to play a role in shaping the future of MMA. In being able to think critically about its hazards, and to start a chain reaction of events that open the forum to those in a position of power to respond to the discussions, we the fans, consider important.  

\The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Bloody Elbow readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloody Elbow editors or staff.