Link emerges between ALS and head injuries

We received on Tuesday a DVD with the rough cuts of the latest episode of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.  The lead item focuses on the potential connection between Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and head injuries. 

As the segment from Bernard Goldberg began to play, we were skeptical.  We’ve sensed at times the beginnings of an anti-football agenda on the topic of head injuries.  Though we’ll agree that football (and other sports, like hockey, soccer, boxing, and MMA) could result in repeated trauma to the contents of the cranium, we think that serious health consequences arise for only a small portion of the football-playing population.  Indeed, an 80-year-old Frank Gifford appeared in the booth during halftime of Monday night’s game between the Giants and the Jets, and he doesn’t look or sound like a guy who took excessive blows to the head during the days of leather and/or paper-thin plastic helmets — even though he once missed an extended chunk of playing time after being flattened by an elbow from Chuck Bednarik.

From our perspective, the issue is whether football players would chose not to play football if they knew the risks.  I previously believed that, in nearly every case, they would.

After watching Goldberg’s excellently-crafted segment, I’m not so sure.  (And, frankly, I’m going to make my kid — whose middle-school team starts hitting tomorrow night — watch it with me.  I’m also toying with the possibility of yanking him out of the sport entirely, which given what I now do for a living is saying something.)

In the overall population, only one in 100,000 persons will develop ALS.  Better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, ALS attacks the body while leaving the mind completely intact.  Slowly, the patient loses all ability to walk, talk, eat, and — eventually — breathe.

Former Raiders running back Steve Smith is in the latter stages of the disease.  Former Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg died from it.  Goldberg said that research has revealed 14 former NFL players who have developed ALS.

Former Vikings safety Orlando Thomas, whose name was not mentioned in the piece, was the subject of erroneous reports that he had died last year from ALS.  Though he’s still alive, Thomas also still has ALS, which is incurable and always fatal. 

A spike in ALS also has been found among soccer players, boxers, and CFL players, and research into the brains and spinal cords of athletes who died from ALS has revealed the same kind of damage seen in the brains of former players who developed Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy.

Meanwhile, Goldberg and staff uncovered some evidence to suggest that Gehrig himself may have developed ALS due to head trauma, pointing out that news accounts reveal at least six serious head injuries.  One on occasion, Gehrig’s head was so swollen that he had to borrow Babe Ruth’s hat in order to keep his streak of consecutive games played alive.

The most compelling moment came when Smith, who communicates by selecting letters with his eyes, had this to say about the sport he played at the highest levels:  “When is enough enough?  You have the old school owners that say that it’s how you make them tough.  I would love to see them get out there and hit heads against guys that are bigger than them.  That would bring it to a close real fast.”

Smith then did one of the few things that his body will permit him to do.  He cried.

It’s powerful stuff.  The show debuted last night, and it will be replayed several times on HBO and HBO2.  Anyone who plays football or whose family members play football should watch it, and then they should factor the risk — small as it may be — of dying a slow, horrible death into their overall decision-making processes.

29 responses to “Link emerges between ALS and head injuries

  1. It takes Teller and Penn’s show Bullsh*t ( on Showtime) to debunk many of these medical studies that are often based upon poor research with an agenda. Certainly this blog PFT is way out of its league to make any conclusions of a serious medical study diluted into sensational TV.

  2. “One on occasion, Gehrig’s head was so swollen that he had to borrow Babe Ruth’s hat in order to keep his streak of consecutive games played alive.” — ZING!

  3. Interestingly enough, Michael Crichton wrote a fictional novel about this in the 70’s called “The Terminal Man.” I just finished reading it and am astonished that we are 3.5 decades later without much movement on the subject.

  4. I don’t doubt that head injuries can/do contribute to ALS. I don’t think you can look at head injuries as the sole factor. What is the ratio of ALS in athletes compared to the ratio of ALS in the general population? How many athletes with ALS would’ve developed ALS even if they had never played a sport? What makes some athletes more suseptible to contracting ALS than others?
    If brains of dead athlets have been preserved, I think it would be a good idea to do a brain analysis on them.

  5. This makes me feel comfortable, having sustained a head injury myself.
    /Everyone begins to understand why my posts are what they are now.

  6. I have known one person in my life who developed ALS. He played defensive back in the SEC in the 1970s. This may make more sense now.

  7. Definitely, Mike, you should crush your son’s dreams because he might end up playing playing football long enough to take as many blows to the head as Wally Hilgenberg. By all means, do not prudently consider that youth football in 2010 may not put your son at the same risk as playing NFL football in the 1960’s and 70’s. And definitely do not think about the fact that youth football players are a large enough sample that ALS patterns among them would’ve likely been spotted long ago.

  8. @Rhapsody,
    To suggest that Penn and Teller could be a reliable source of medical information would also be WAY out of their league. I think that’s why they have peer reviewed journals.

  9. I have known one person in my life who developed ALS. He played defensive back in the SEC in the 1970s. This may make more sense to me now.

  10. I don’t know what all the fuss is about? I’ve suffered dozens of concussions, and it hasn’t effected me at all. So, in summary, the law states quite clearly that you must have a lighting source for your flag at night.

  11. I watched this show and almost fell out when I realized that was Steve Smith!! He looks bad and just a shell of the man he once was!
    I love football and rarely miss a game unless the boss is calling, but being a member of the medical community for 20 years I can see where this very rough sport is going to have its share of sad stories long after their careers have come to an end.

  12. How much money does the NFL spend annually on helmet research? What percentage of their combined gross is that?

  13. Definite link between ALS and head injuries, and it’s not surprising when you see those ALS guys stumbling around the way they do, falling, and running into things. They should make them wear helmets.

  14. Poo Flinging Monkey says:
    I don’t know what all the fuss is about? I’ve suffered dozens of concussions, and it hasn’t effected me at all. So, in summary, the law states quite clearly that you must have a lighting source for your flag at night.
    Holy eff! I know I will burn in hell for this, but thanks for the laugh, Poo!!! Turned around an otherwise amazingly crappy day. Hope you don’t get slammed too much by others for it.

  15. Did it really take experts to figure out that football is dangerous?
    Look, we know the game is risky. So is life. Be smart. Play hard and if you get hit hard, sit out and don’t make it worse than it is.
    There are risks everywhere. All you can do is make the right choices and avoid fatal moves.

  16. It’s not brain trauma that “mimics ALS”, it’s a inherent genetic condition known as Trailer Trash Bully Syndrome.

  17. I remember that the subject was broached by people who noticed the unusual number of 49ers who had developed ALS.

  18. @Falcon in NE: Penn and Teller’s show is in the same vein as Michael Moore’s research into coverups and contradictions in medical studies. As they say, if you want to find the truth, follow the money that supports research studies: who is paying for it and why. Those who actually benefit from studies might surprise you.

  19. Somebody mentioned MMoore.
    Michael Moore is a fat,rich, progressive putz, that wants to redistribute all the wealth—except his own.

  20. What’s Florio Jr. gonna do when he grows up? You may not let him play football. He obviously can’t play the drums. Maybe he can become a media hack like his dad. That doesn’t require much talent. He just needs to be able to make a bunch of non stories into something more.

  21. Thank you!
    A big thanks for covering this story. And a big thanks for shedding some of your skepticism.
    I love watching football. But I really do fear for the health of these men. And I really do think the NFL needs to get serious about addressing concussion.
    (I assume we’re all in agreement that a poster on the locker room wall doesn’t qualify as getting serious?)

  22. My brother was diagnosed w/ALS at 42 yrs old and died at 47. In his life he sustained many injuries to the head. He was hit in the head by a hammer as a kid, fell off a roof hitting his head,
    hit playing ball by a bat, fell during a fight onto a cement sidewalk and actually lost hearing in one ear from hitting his head, played ball with a concussion, broke his nose…..there’s more, these are just the times I can remember! We had a family joke (not too funny now) that as long as he landed on his head, he was okay.
    It makes perfect sense to me.

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