Head Injuries Make Football a Bad Bet

Are a few years of football fame worth decades of mental decline?

A few days ago, I saw this about professional football players who have shown signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that seems to be related to dementia and can result from multiple head injuries over a high school, college and pro career. It's incredibly sad:

Two weeks ago, upon arriving in California for his evaluation and brain scan at UCLA, Dorsett described to "Outside the Lines" the symptoms that compelled him to seek testing: memory loss, depression and thoughts of suicide.

The former Cowboys running back, now 59, said that when he took his Oct. 21 flight from Dallas to Los Angeles for testing, he repeatedly struggled to remember why he was aboard the plane and where he was going. Such episodes, he said, are commonplace when he travels.

Dorsett said he also gets lost when he drives his two youngest daughters, ages 15 and 10, to their soccer and volleyball games.

"I've got to take them to places that I've been going to for many, many, many years, and then I don't know how to get there," he said.

The 1976 Heisman Trophy winner and eighth all-time leading NFL rusher said he has trouble controlling his emotions and is prone to outbursts at his wife and daughters.

Two days ago, an Arizona high school student died from a head injury incurred during a football game.

Some level of injury -- even fatal injury -- is inevitable if we're going to play sports or, for that matter, if we're going to get out of bed in the morning. But I'm starting to wonder if the level of injury involved in sports such as football and boxing is worth it to the players involved. A few short years in the limelight are followed by decades of decline.

Worse still, a lot of people get the decline without ever getting much time in the limelight. Sports is what economists call an "all-payer auction." Imagine that I'm auctioning off a $20 bill to 50 people. Everyone puts their bids in cash in an envelope and gives it to me. The winner gets the $20; I get to keep all the bids. It's likely that I'll make more than $20 on this deal.

For every guy who makes it to a professional sports league, dozens have worked just as hard playing in college but didn't get the brass ring. And there are thousands of kids who played for four years in high school but didn't make it to the college level. When the sport is basketball, this may be sad, but it's not particularly worrying, unless they're giving up on school because they think they're going to be in the National Basketball Association. But when the sport is football, a whole lot of those also-rans are "paying" not just with practice time, but also with repeated concussions that may permanently degrade their cognitive function. This is a waste of a good brain.

I like watching football games. But it's getting hard to enjoy them, knowing the risks those players are subjecting themselves to for the entertainment of their fans. And as we learn more about CTE, I wonder how long parents will let their kids continue to bid brain cells on a shot at high school popularity or a distant, unlikely spot in the National Football League.

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    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

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