Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Commentator Frank Deford would like to remind fans now, of the darker side of sports, including soccer and football.

FRANK DEFORD: An autopsy has shown that Chris Henry, the young Cincinnati Bengal who died a few months ago, suffered what is called CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy - which means, more simply, that his brain had been traumatized.

CTE can only be diagnosed only in the brain tissue of cadavers, and 22 deceased former NFL players have been identified with it. Studies also show that elderly men who played football have four times the rate of dementia as other U.S. males.

What makes the Chris Henry case so frightening, however, is that he is the first current player to be diagnosed with CTE. And his case is even more of a tocsin because it doesn't seem that he suffered any serious concussions. How easy might it be for certain athletes to have their brains damaged?

Not just football players, either. Studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics have shown that girls get concussions on the soccer field at much the same rate as boys do playing football.

One cannot watch the World Cup, where players slug balls going 60 miles an hour with their heads - not to mention banging into opponents' heads - without thinking that the world's finest soccer athletes must surely be at the same risk of CTE as NFL players are.

Jim Joyce was himself a football player. He got concussions of his own and also remembers laughing at befuddled teammates when they got - in the vernacular -dinged. It was all a joke then, all part of being a tough guy on the gridiron.

Joyce's University of Maryland teammate, a stalwart, sensible guy named Tom McHale, made the NFL. But by the age of 45, diminished by depression and drugs, he had died of an overdose. His widow, Lisa, spoke hauntingly to a group of retired players recently about McHale's tragic last years; he not knowing that his failures as a man were not really his, but caused by the neurological distress that was surely the product of so many head hits on the football field.

Now, Jim Joyce, McHale's old friend who is the chairman of Aethlon Medical, a research firm in San Diego, is conducting an investigation to discover if there might be common biomarkers that could lead to identifying those with a predisposition to CTE.

Joyce suggests that if a test could be developed, it might help some parents steer their children away from sports like American football and soccer, where concussions are, sadly, just a part of the game.

How does a father let his sons play football if he's been diagnosed with a good chance of getting CTE? Joyce asked.

Football and soccer are well-established as, in the worst sense of the word, head games. They're too popular to be substantially changed. But if we can find a way to discover which players are more susceptible to permanent damage from concussions, it will make both sports more tolerable entertainments.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Frank Deford joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. His new book is "Bliss Remembered," a suspense novel about an American swimmer who falls in love with the son of a Nazi diplomat at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And Im Mary Louise Kelly.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford