Courage, Contact Sports, and CTE.

I played Lacrosse for about five years, as a kid, and even though I had some fun, I probably shouldn’t have. I was a scrawny kid, rarely eclipsing 120 lbs, and I absolutely loved to hit. I have no idea what I was thinking, to be honest. I played a little Football, although I wasn’t allowed on the field unless there was a 40-7 blowout because, again, I wasn’t, from a purely physical standpoint, exactly worthy of being on the field as as future NFL players when it came to skill or talent, and oftentimes my body couldn’t handle what I was doing to it.

Same with Lacrosse: I eventually sustained a fairly significant knee injury, with my right kneecap clocked in by the surgeon at 40% out-of-place, to say nothing of tendonitis or other damages to the joint. This eventual medical-benching came after a tenth-grade junior varsity game in which I decided to body-check a defenseman easily twice my size while going for a ground ball. That was one element of the benching, to be honest; the other was that, as I had decent instincts for the game, one of my team-mates happened to agree but come at the other player from his other side. When this other fellow fell on top of me, well, something was bound to give and it was likely the skinny grunge-goth kid. I actually had a bad knee before that, and wore a brace to support it that earned me the nick-name “squeaks,” but even better, I actually scored my first – and last – goal of the season in that game.

I remember my coach screaming at me to come out, mainly because he is a good man and knew I wasn’t in any shape to continue playing. I remember laughing him off because I didn’t know what ‘shapes’ were really broken, and coveted my playing time. I still think I was better at the game than I was given credit for. I remember discovering, after surgery, recovery, and disavowal of Lacrosse, that I was far better as a Tennis player, anyway; in two years I made it to All-Division status, and earned my place on my school’s “wall of fame.” Teenage male bluster is something to behold, and as an educator I’ve seen it extend into my early-to-mid thirties on a virtually-guaranteed basis. Young men have this implacable belief that they are all but invincible.

You see, let’s fast-forward to the modern era, away from the days in which the tall, sort of skinny friend of yours from around the corner that you hit at full speed was yet to become a super-star athlete. Fast forward to the days of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE is, and I’m not a doctor so allow me a wide berth for error, a form of brain damage caused by repeated head trauma (such as concussions, of which I have had at least two significant ones in my life) that only manifests years after the injuries occur. Unlike more easily empathized-with injuries that leave scars on the skin, CTE doesn’t leave a visible mark in the present; it comes as a malignant reminder of what we’ve done in the past. Fortunately, I have had brain-scans that do not indicate any neurological trauma. I’m thankful for this, especially as I’ve seen first-hand what age alone can do to the Human mind. I fear for my old friends, not just those who played Football but those who played Lacrosse as well.

Unfortunately, CTE is currently not exactly detectable until after a victim’s death1, given that certain tau proteins need to be analyzed to make a definitive diagnosis, this means brain scans are not a reliable factor in excluding injury. I dread discovering that I’ve endured some degree of this disease; I tremble at the possible exposure my more athletic friends have experienced. Symptoms of a first-stage case of CTE include mild psychiatric symptoms that could be mistaken as having other sources; attention hyperactivity defect disorder (ADHD), dizziness, and headaches. Second-stage damage has similarly amorphous definitions, such as increases in impulsive behavior and a shaky memory. As someone diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, whose mind often wanders, I wonder sometimes – are my behaviors caused by my active youth? Did young Jesse have such an impact on early-thirties Jesse?

Thankfully the progression of symptoms seems to stop at these levels. Further CTE damage is similar to Altzheimer’s in terms of dementia, but include depression and suicidiality. I read stories about sports stars like Junior Seau and Aaron Hernandez, and even WWE legend Chris Benoit, and like the medical community I am in shock at just how prevalent this disorder may be. If athletes as young as 27 – Aaron Hernandez’ age at the time of his in-jail suicide – are crippled by this disorder, it makes me worry how soon it sets in. It makes me fear for my friends, who have been engaged in contact sports for far longer than Mr. Hernandez lived.

What started out as a personal piece about my passion for a sport has, through a series of twists, ended up a reflection on the potential harm that contact sports can cause. This calls for a pause; for a recalculation. “Should these sports be banned?” is a popular question when the subject of CTE comes up, but we’re talking about multi-billion dollar juggernauts that reach out and have childrens’ leagues. Furthermore, the evidence as to how prevalent CTE actually is, well, doesn’t really exist as of yet. Surely, it can be agreed that reducing contact amongst younger children whose brains are still developing is a primary concern for those seeking to reduce the harm of these sports, but until more research is completed about where the thresholds of damage lie, it’s hard to imagine parents and players giving up their game.

After all, back when I was young and felt invincible, I was more than happy to ignore an immediate physical injury if it meant a chance to get a goal.  My favorite sport of all wasn’t any of the ones I’ve already mentioned; it was skiing with my father over the winter vacations, and it was possibly the most dangerous of them all – especially in the golden “Time Before Helmets” that existed before the deaths of Kennedy and Bono.  Skiers know the risks when they get on the lift; we read a litany of legalese before we even put on our lift tickets.  We know that the big mistake could lead to the big injury, but that – unlike Lacrosse or Football – the goal isn’t contact with another player.  Does that cover-your-own doctrine apply to all sports?

My childhood would have been unrecognizable had my sporting activities been prohibited or restrained, but we lived at a time before we knew of the long-term consequences of these activities.  Now that we know – now that I dread discovering I have somehow been impacted by them – what will we do?  I only ask the question, for I have no answers.


Jesse Pohlman is an author from Long Island, New York.  When he’s not sporting about, he’s writing science-fiction and fantasy novels.  Check out his latest work, The Bartenders of the Nexus Tavern, available online (only) for only a buck!

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