Should we ban playing football?

How football contributes to the recent financial crisis and the Great Recession

Miloš Forman's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), movie poster detail
Miloš Forman's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), movie poster detail
7 NOV 2014

In his, still not outdated, 1995 published, and a Copenhagen library staff recently recommended book, "Descartes' Error", psychologist Antonio Damasio points to a long-term mental condition caused by the damages to the frontal lobe of the human brain that may be very difficult to diagnose. Such damages, the author claims, can permanently impair one's ability to make fully rational, good decisions even if they possess brilliant knowledge, education or intelligence.

Such frontal lobe damages (lesions) cause profound and consistent change of behaviour in the most of the recognised patients. Such patients became asocial, often passive and indecisive, unaffectionate, prone to making wrong and risky business or investment decisions. They are also prone to money borrowing, driven by myopic, short term, preferably, the immediate rewards whilst neglecting the obvious risks of pending punishment and often the prospects of a much bigger but distant term rewards. In such comments many will immediately recognise the damaging behaviour of many leading investors and corporate managers or some of the over-indebted household decision-makers. Such individuals have been damned for their short-termism, an economic behaviour which, at the very least contributed to, if not led the world economies into both the recent financial crisis and the so-called Great Recession. Several behavioural economists, such as the Nobel Prize winner Akerlof and his co-author Shiller (Animal Spirits), did point to the heard, irrational behaviour of the economic agents, investment and business leaders as one of the main contributing factors for the Great Recession.

In some extreme cases, frontal lobe damages were even prescribed and practised as a surgical therapy called lobotomy. This practice was devised in early 20th Century and was widely accepted and systematically performed across the world. Later on, this surgical treatment was superseded by the non-invasive electric shock therapy and both treatments were applied with varied success with the main aim to reduce the intensity of extreme anxiety or violent behaviour.

They, however, often led the treated patients to become passive, near-vegetative behaving beings, not unlike zombies. (Their effects were well depicted in famous films such as "Shock Corridor" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"). How is it then possible that so many leading people are behaving as if they suffer from brain damage to their frontal lobes, "on a lobotomy scale", i.e., as if being exposed to a mild form of lobotomy?

I, however, also recall a story of a friend, a clinical psychologist who at the time was working at a major London hospital, also nearly twenty years ago when I was working, in a technical role, at the Centre for Speech and Language of the London University (itself focused on the research of the brain lesions impairing speech and language comprehension).

The friend was claiming that her research into minor, often invisible but potentially long term damaging head injuries caused by e.g. even minor traffic accidents, suffered obstacles. It was hampered by the lack of funding and support of both her medical peers and the medical insurance companies refusing to consider such difficult to diagnose damages as potentially liable for accidental damage insurance payments.

On the other hand, the most of those leading and middle-management positions appear statistically to be held by males. Many of them were selected for their competitive nature, many again featuring their team sport achievements in their CVs as some of their beneficial of their beneficial if not commonly the most significant, qualifying attributes for those leading positions, mostly as these sporting achievements are often highly regarded by other similar, leading characters.

However, most frequently, those team sports tend to be rugby and football (or both, combined in the form of the American football). And, it is these sports where the heads of their players' end up often used for functions very different to thinking - either for hitting and pushing the opposite teams' players, or, for reflecting and bouncing-off relatively heavy and often fast approaching balls. Although very minor, these actions and the resulting head-stresses are often repetitive. Indeed such minor stresses may, over time, evolve into brain lesions in the frontal region with long, if not ever-lasting consequences of hidden chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

We do not need to look far to find many more and already up-to-date references to football (and specially American Football) related repetitive head and brain injuries[1].

Repetitive head trauma and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) from sport can also increase chance of Early Onset Dementia and Alzheimer's: "Groups that experience repeated head injuries, such as boxers, football players and combat veterans, may be at increased risk of dementia, late-life cognitive impairment and evidence of tau tangles (a hallmark of Alzheimer’s) at autopsy[2]."

Does that then mean that we should ban playing such sports?

Probably not. And, though a due, independent and unbiased research would be more than beneficial, prohibiting and penalising the use of heads to bounce balls or push other players , if not in professional, but at least in juniors' games, could be a good starting point to preserve those juniors' health and their future well-being, and consequently, that of our economy as whole.

We should, therefore, remind ourselves that the word "foot-ball" should mean exactly what it states… and not a game of head-front-banging.

In the meantime, playing football and other, similar, repetitive head-injury prone games in one's youth may be regarded as one of disqualifying red tickets rather than a feature beneficial for any future leadership positions.

N.B. Special thanks to the friendly and proactive staff of Copenhagen University Bibliotek who kindly put Damasio's book at the recommended reading shelf.

[1] Head injuries cause measurable brain damage (LA Times), Head Injuries in Football (NYTimes, BBC), Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (Wikipedia), and sometimes even suicidal tendencies (NY Times)