Yesterday I joined a lunch at which an eminent research scientist raised the topic of the long-term effects of repeated blows to the head in sport. This move produced a fascinating fifteen minute discussion around our table.
I have a passing interest in this field. A generation or more ago, as a cub reporter, I had once worked for a boxing magazine on a story about ‘punch drunkenness’ and similar syndromes in the sport of boxing – that said, I’d hesitate from this distance to claim any insider knowledge.
In those days, the conclusion I reached – inescapable to a layman’s eyes, having read the academic research I uncovered and talked to a QC who was involved with British Boxing’s Board of Control at the time – was that boxing was inherently dangerous. One of the key causational factors was that, for example, a blow in anger to the forehead (whether or not by a fist inside a boxing or any other glove) propelled the brain inside the recipient’s head backwards. Other than possibly superficially, the real damage did not occur at the point of punch impact but – when the brain had progressed backwards far enough – at the point where the back of the brain was potentially bruised by its impact with the back of the skull.
Having listened politely to my comments as above, our lead speaker then explained some of his recent research and findings on something quite different. In his view, the biggest adverse result of repeated blows to the head occurred in their rotational effect. He held his clenched fist up vertically in order to represent the neck and head of a skeleton and then demonstrated (by turning his wrist) the long-term effects of repeated involuntary rotations which – he said – had a potentially devastating effect upon the the brain stem cells at the bottom of the head as it goes down into the spinal chord. These produced – over time – effects not dissimilar to the atrophy and disconnections to tails (tangles) in components of the brain caused by dementia.
“You mean like Muhammad Ali?” asked someone, to give but a famous example of many that those of us interested in professional boxing could think of.
“Exactly …” came the response.
The academic gave his opinion that boxing should be banned.
He added that, in the cause of equality, females were now increasing participating in the sport – this was nothing to do gallantry or sexism on his part, but he felt this was a fundamentally wrong development.
He was asked about recent concussion issues in American football, rugby and soccer. He responded from his academic position and expertise – he is currently working with one famous rugby club on this specific issue [for reasons of confidentiality he could not say which] – with telling and forceful insight. He also made the point that whilst the administrators of all physical impact sports had matters to consider, boxing was one of the few in which deliberate blows to the head were a fundamental and wholly intended part of the action.
Food for thought there, I think.