Another dead pro cyclist and football/ mountaineering = dumber than I thought

I thought about what, if anything, I wanted to say about Frank Vandenbroucke, but don't need to now, via the end of this boulder report postI found this article: this excellent article by Lionel Birnie. Go read it. Mostly what I wanted to say was this part:

While not for a moment suggesting that Tom Boonen is on the same path as Vandenbroucke, it is impossible to avoid the early-warning signs. Like Pantani, Vandenbroucke's descent seemed steady and unstoppable. Once on the downward spiral the brief rallies were only temporary.

It is pretty clear that VDB was on a path that was difficult to get off, ditto pantani. I think I had my say about boonen here. There is a riders union, there is a pretty strong governing organization in the UCI, get with it before it is too late, when your star riders are dying alone in hotel rooms, you have a problem that is bigger than Operation puerto and Astana's trash, especially if this continues.

In somewhat related news. There is a typical Malcom Gladwell article in last weeks new yorker on football and dogfighting. No, it does not talk about how pro football players engage in dogfighting, but in a typical Gladwellian overreach he says football and dogfighting are pretty much the same. Why? Because football players, especially ones that get hit hard often and get concussions, get permanent brain damage at extremely young ages and this leads to very early onset dementia. And dogfighting is a similarly cruel sport where the "athletes" die or kill on the game floor. See? Exactly the same. I think this would have been an excellent article without conflating dogfighting with football. He rightly takes the NFL and football in general to task for the whole "warrior/playin hurt" mentality. There are some disturbing stories of severe brain damage in teenagers and college football players as well as some impressively dismal instrumented helmet experiments showing magnitudes of head deceleration. The article is typical Gladwell in excellent research and writing, but I think he is stretching further and further with his conclusions of late. I pretty much hate football, don't watch it, don't even pay attention anymore, but if you like it go read the article, the medical evidence is pretty damning without the dogfighting equation. So there you go football fans, your sport is really frying the brains of your heroes.

Switching sports again, there was a remarkably similar article (minus the dogfighting BS) in Outside this month on brain damage in climbers, mountain climbers that is. Bottom line is that high altitude sickness seems to be a symptom of permanent brain damage, well maybe not quite a symptom, but perhaps they often occur at the same time. The article claims that seasoned pros climb slow and are well trained to avoid this. But people who blitz 14'ers in two days when they live at sea level, well, maybe they are doing some serious damage. Kind of a bummer. How bad is this brain damage? I have no idea, this article, unlike the football one, has no stories of 45 year old climbers dying from early onset dementia caused problems. But since I know lots of people who do this kind of thing (or similar like race Leadville with no high altitude training/acclimatization), uh, slow down guys, if it hurts your brain, it ain't good. There are some interviews with guides who seems to have pretty much fried their cognitive skills doing lots of fast high altitude ascents in short periods of times. I am a bit skeptical of Outsides claim that climber hero Conrad Anker does not have this problem because he is really careful and well trained. I would have liked to see some of the big name climbers get MRI's to show that they are so well trained that they have no brain damage, but my guess is that these guys were once dumb amateurs who fried their brains as well, before they knew better. Anyhow, the most striking point is that they had evidence of people who climbed too fast and had done some damage at a "mere" 14,000 feet. The author, in true outside magazine style, attempted to cause visible (to MRI) brain damage by summiting Mt. Rainier too fast (with his son no less) but alas, he was turned back by weather before making the costly point.

So there you go, cycling has problems, but really they pale in comparison to what is going on in football, that's what I am trying to say, they still have not even begun to look at the steroids/hgh problem in football. Remember if skinny cyclists and relatively tiny baseball players are pickling themselves in drugs to stay competitive, what makes you think your football player don't do the same. To tie it all together, I will say that the climbing and brain damage is a bit of a related downer, but I think it really applies more to weekend warriors blitzing climbs with no altitude prep, and idiots who climb Everest and the like sans supplemental oxygen, but they are dumb to begin with. In conclusion, if it hurts real bad, it probably is not good for you. So stop it. Unless it is fun. Then think about it for a bit...

Postcript: my secret theory is that racing hard in endurance sports kills brain cells too. No way that going that far into oxygen debt is good for you. I think it is probably the best/healthiest way to kill your brain cells though. Stupid football


Chad said...

Wow, you took shots at Malcom and at football. What's next post, an attack on maple trees and apple pie?

I don't think that it has been proven that football collisions cause permanant brain injuries for all (i.e., a handful of cases is not definitive). BUT, the football world would be insane to not investigate. The scariest part of the Malcom article is the lack of any solutions.

I'm glad that I was a skinny twerp in HS -- soccer and baseball for me.

Mark Bishop said...

I have the fortune to be friends with the Emeritus Director of the Oklahoma State University Student Health Center, Dr. Don Cooper. "He was an active member of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports under Presidents Reagan and Bush, a U.S. Olympic team physician for the XIX Olympiad, and a sports medicine consultant to the NCAA Football Rules Committee." He and I have had long discussions about health and sports and he has a specific problem when it comes to football and head to head contact. At one point he campaigned to have the helmets changed by adding a softer foam type component to the outside for initial shock absorption and as a way to slow the rate of deceleration.

Interestingly enough, the underlying reason this approach to mitigate incremental head injuries was the fact that fans associate the sound of helmets cracking together with the sport. Silencing the game so to speak was not seen as a viable option. Gladwell's argument, dogfighting aside, seems to me to be a well known issue within the sport. If we have learned anything from other sports it is that omerta is the rule more than the exception. A quick look at the budget for a top ranked college program would satisfy motivation and intent for that silence.

reverend dick said...

I think making football "safer" is not in the interest of the game. Football IS dudes pummeling each other. No one involved wants that to change; then it wouldn't be football.

It is a stupid game (in my opinion like all ball sports...get the ball! get the ball!).

Finally, if it hurts real bad, it must be a good ride.

bikelovejones said...

I, too read the article in the New Yorker. Sadly, I was not terribly surprised.

As a marching band geek, held captive in the stands for quarter 1, 2 and 4 of every high school game, I saw a lot of kids get hurt, and far too many taken away on stretchers. A few whose head injuries showed up right away did not come back to school for a very long time. A few who did return never seemed quite as sharp again.

I wonder if there is any correlation between football-based head injuries and the number of college footballers who struggle academically. The lower graduation rates of footballers versus athletes in other sports seems to bear this out, at least in part.

Tarik Saleh said...

Wait for the Apple Pie expose coming next month on MOSCALINE, I report, you decide.

Mark, Rev D.
Yep, I think the fans won't really stand for safer football. We will see if the giant new batting helmets catch on in baseball. I doubt it.

I too sat through 4 years of HS football games in the band. I still resent that you HAD to do that to be in band, even if you competed in other sports. Bah. I think the college football player lack of academic performance has nothing to do with brain injury and everything to do with the culture of big time college sports. Having witnessed the idiocy of big time Tennessee college football and the surrounding booster and academic coaches and the infinitesimal graduation rates, it is pretty easy to see that they only care that the athletes are minimally qualified to play and they don't really care if they actually graduate.

Thanks for the comments everyone.