Brain disease and contact sports have become the most uneasy bedfellows in modern media reporting. The pair has become all but inexorably linked in headlines. From Hollywood to documentaries to the pages of top sports publications, concussive force and professional sports have become a perennial one-two punch combination.
The latest news in this ongoing cycle of Bad To Worse: BMX superstar Dave Mirra was diagnosed, post-mortem, with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This is the same brain disease that has been linked to many former professional athletes, some of the biggest in the sports world: Junior Seau, Kenny Stabler, and Bubba Smith. At this point, pro football has been the most common connection. Mirra changed that. He’s officially the first extreme athlete to be diagnosed with the disease.
Mirra, Seau, and many other athletes took part, posthumously, in a landmark study on former athlete’s brains. Some, like Mirra, are believed to have committed suicide. This, too, is becoming linked to CTE, which reportedly causes Alzheimer’s like symptoms including memory loss, rage, mood swings, and depression.
Because CTE cannot be definitively diagnosed until after death, the issue had been a murky one for many years. Most people knew many pro athletes suffered from some sort of negative condition related to their playing days, but it had not been conclusively linked to concussions until this study began.
Now, as this study continues and the evidence continues to mount, the PR crisis for contact sports grows. Adults tend to write off the dangers faced by professional gladiators, but what about kids’ sports? Is the “heads up” movement enough to guarantee the safety of the smallest participants in contact athletics? And, if not, what then?
That question will likely be answered by a lengthy battle of wits and words, cultural messaging clashing with developing science as those who love sports and those who fear its consequences try to shift public opinion their way. Barring any sort of major breakthrough, it’s likely to be an argument that stretches generations, while most folks just try to figure out what it all means.
Elie Hirschfeld is NY real estate developer.