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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.