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Brain research could lead to revolutionary changes

Earlier this week, our Tom Curran spoke with Dr. Julian Bailes, Chair of West Virginia University’s Department of Neurosurgery. And Curran picked up some powerful stuff regarding the problem of head injuries in football.

Bailes is one of the nation’s leading experts regarding sports-related concussions, and he has worked with Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist who has researched the brains of men like Mike Webster, Terry Long, Andre Waters, and Justin Strzelczyk -- all former NFL players who died prematurely, and who suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Since it’s Saturday and you’ve got time to slow down a little bit and digest some pretty serious concepts, read Curran’s article at and long but excellent GQ feature from Jeanne Marie Laskas, on which much of Curran’s article is based.

“I don’t want to bash the NFL,” Dr. Bailea told Curran. “I love football and I love the NFL. It’s a great business and there are many great men and women working in it. The purpose of my criticisms in the [GQ] article and going forward is to spur action to make the future of violent, contact sports safer.”

The action might include, if Dr. Bailes has his way, complete elimination of head-to-head contact, and possibly the end of the three-point stance.

The fundamental problem is that, regardless of the quality of the helmet that a player is wearing, the brain still moves inside the cranium when the body stops suddenly. And that can contribute to the buildup of “tau proteins,” which can clog the brain like sludge.

“You can have padding on the head a foot thick and it wouldn’t matter,” Dr. Bailes said. “You’ve got a brain suspended in cerebral spinal fluid. When your cranium suddenly stops whether by somebody hitting your head or hitting you somewhere else to change your direction with force, your brain continues forward. It hits your skull then bounces back and hits the other side of the skull. But it’s not only the damage of your brain striking the bone of the skull but there’s a micro-vacuum at the capillary level that is caused microscopic damage.”

Dr. Bailes believes that, without real change, “It’s going to get worse.”

The challenge for those of us who follow the NFL is to realize that the men who supply us with thrills and highlights on Sundays and Monday nights have a lot of years left to live after their careers end. So before dismissing the notion of embracing adjustments aimed at making an inherently dangerous game a little more safe for those who play it, let’s consider the fact that, while those players might at times seems like finely-tuned machines, they’re human beings -- and they need to be able to make contributions to their families, society, and themselves for decades beyond the last time they’ve removed a football helmet.