Last week's suicide of famed football star Junior Seau brought the topic of the long-term effects of concussions back to the forefront of the sporting world.
In truth, it's a discussion that hasn't gone away over the past few years, and rightly so. The February 2011 suicide of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, and the medical confirmation that Duerson suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions at the time of his death, was one of the first major NFL cases to unfold in the public eye.
And hundreds of former NFL players (including names such as Jim McMahon, Dorsey Levens and Jamal Turner) have filed suit against the league, claiming that the NFL deliberately withheld information regarding concussions that was critical to player safety.
Research into CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) has made plenty of headway in recent years, but it will be a battle fought well into the future. Fans of the National Football League hate to see the game they love changed at a fundamental level, and yet those changes seemingly must be made in order to protect the long-term futures of the players we tune in to see each Sunday afternoon. We're already seeing plenty of calls for the NFL to take more action in protecting its players.
And what about mixed martial arts? We've yet to see any high-profile CTE cases emerge from the sport. But given the violence inherent in professional cagefighting, it seems highly unlikely that we'll go another 10 years without some kind of concussion-related tragedy occurring.
With that in mind, should we start taking steps to prevent these kinds of things from happening down the road? Dr. Johnny Benjamin, the medical columnist for MMAjunkie.com, says we should. He proposes that fighters such as Pat Barry, who suffered his second knockout loss in under a year, should take a year off from fighting in order to let his brain heal:
The year off would provide an opportunity for his brain to heal without the continued insult of smaller (sub-concussive) blows that are a routine part of MMA training. Highlight-reel KTFOs and "Knock Out of the Night" performances get most of the attention for obvious reasons, but if you only focus on these events, you're missing the real story.
One of the things that we are learning in concussion management is that all of those routine head knocks that no one ever thinks about actually accumulate over time and are very, very important. The brain has an "injury meter," and every time it takes a significant jolt, the needle rises.
Current thinking is that there is a continuum based on accumulated force directed at the brain. At some point (currently poorly defined) symptoms occur (concussion), and as the accumulation of force grows, temporary (MTBI-minimally traumatic brain injury) then permanent damage (CTE-chronic traumatic encephalopathy) occurs.
I strongly support this idea, and I think it's something that needs to be looked at by the various athletic commissions that sanction the sport. I'm not a doctor (I was a medic in the Army, but that's hardly the same thing), but logic dictates that taking time off to heal an injured brain is a good thing to do. In a perfect world, fighters who suffer two knockouts in under 12 months should be forced to sit on the sidelines for a year.
Forcing a fighter out of action for a year or more seems like an impossible thing to enforce. Yes, it hampers their ability to make a living. Most professional fighters aren't making money if they aren't fighting. There are guys who get a monthly paycheck from a sponsor even if they aren't fighting, much like an employee of a regular company would.
But those cases are not the norm in mixed martial arts. Still, I consider long-term health and living a more important factor than current monetary status.
The UFC could help. They could issue monthly paychecks to fighters who are suspended for knockouts while keeping those fighters involved in promotional events for the company. Barry is a perfect example of a guy who could go out and do other things for the company while also giving his brain time to heal.
As we've seen in the NFL, there is no easy solution to this problem. And as I said above, it hasn't even developed into a problem in mixed martial arts. Not yet.
But I'd rather look into solutions for the problem now than look back 10 years from now and wish we'd paid attention.