Friday, September 24, 2010

To Excel is a Habit: Lessons of Ichiro

Consistent and high level human achievement builds upon habits. It's startlingly simple. To engage and succeed in complicated and demanding activities requires practice, reflection, learning and more practice. The keys lie in the interaction of practice and reflection. If you practice a failed action over and over, you just fail over and over. When Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki hit his 200th. hit for his tenth straight season, he not only achieved what no other baseball player had ever achieved, but demonstrated that excellence builds upon the very mundane but critical concept of habits.

It is hard to fathom the magnitude of the achievement. Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest activities in all of sports. Ten to twenty players a year may bat above 300; a trace element garner 200 hits over 600 plus at bats. Now magnify 200 hits for ten years running--1600 plus games!

Such batting reflects a stunning degree of consistency and concentration. To succeed is one thing; but to succeed over time only occurs if a person masters the art of a profession and then constantly adapts. In baseball as in life, once you succeed, your competitors adapt. A litigator will face new strategies or a politician different candidates or a business new products and competitors. Ichiro defied this competitive dynamic. Here are his stats over the last decade!!

2010 *200.315

The lesson of Ichiro's success carries over to all aspects of life. A master of a craft practices but practices mindfully. Individuals perform the action, maybe interviewing a candidate, teaching a class, writing a report (it really does not matter). Then they evaluate the success of failure of the action. Then they revise and train themselves to adapt the next time.

Success like this builds on a set of habits that embody an emotional and cognitive ability to scan the situation, judge what is required, and then act upon it. Over time and experience, great professionals and masters spontaneously act this way because their practice has engraved habits of perception, recall and judgement in their minds and bodies. Habit not only grounds character but grounds achievement.

So hitting 300 or getting 200 hits one year is an amazing accomplishment. But to continue means that the player must adapt each year to new pitchers and to coaches and pitchers who have pored over statistics and tape to analyze every tendency and pitch around or against them. It means a good athlete, lawyer, doctor, teacher, business person must learn and adapt or their tendencies will lead them to be fail.

The major leagues have probably turned over 90 percent of their pitchers in this decade, but it has not mattered. As in the above examples, each situation is the same but different. The ability to enact consistently while adapting is the key to mastery and greatness in any field of judgment and action.

Perfecting a craft can be a very lonely art. It requires the cooperation of working with others, but it also exacts immense time alone and  ruthless focus upon the minute analyzing, adjusting and practicing the art. Perfecting a craft demands monomaniacal focus. Many superb athletes or professionals look aloof or feel distant because of this devotion. What emotional energy they have left over they devote to family where it counts. They will be consumate professionals with their team; but their team ultimately treats them as a  commodity; their loyalty lies with their craft and deeper bonds.

The other side of a person who excels is their ability to stay focused and ignore the noise. Ichiro achieves this by studious rituals from his catlike stretches to the precision of where and how he hits in the cage. He seldom wastes physical or emotional energy because it is all channeled into achievement of his exquisite hitting and superlative fielding.

You find the same pattern over and over again with great professionals in all fields. They often don't feel like team guys, but they are essential team contributors, and their ability to insulate themselves from the quack of the crowd and whims of fans and media anchors their consistency. In Ichiro's case it becomes more evident because he has played on such awful and woebegone Mariner teams; but despite the losing and carping, he performs. Sustained excellence depends upon the balance and focus to transcend the noise of crowd and passion praise and even glory. It is compatible with glory and for Ichiro to acknowlege his own "happiness." But even then he resolutely refuses to compare himself to others, but remains solitary in his pursuit of a Platonic ideal only he can see.

Mindful repetition; thoughtful adjustment. Persistent and consistent practice and adaptation. It sounds simple; it is very hard.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

NCAA Needs Program Wrecking Sanctions I & II

Reggie Bush returned his Heisman this week. A sad, symbolic, meaningless gesture that does nothing to take away the besmirching of a great heritage award.  At the same time new NCAA President Mark Emmert announced that he expects the NCAA to continue pursing major violators. More centrally he  agreed with the program crippling sanctions imposed upon USC for ignoring Bush's relationships with agents.

Soon the NCAA will pass judgment upon Michigan's football program for excessive coaches and  practice time. Soon they will dismantle North Carolina's program for cheating athletes & tutors  and a passel of players who consorted with agents. Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia etc etc. are all under investigations for agent related charges. Calipari's Kentucky is bound to give them an opening soon, he can't help himself. It is vital for the health of college sports that the NCAA not lose courage and continue with aggressive program wrecking sanctions.

I said program wrecking, not program destroying. The NCAA has been hamstrung for years by its obsession with the A-bomb of sanctions, the dreaded "death penalty" that it once applied to SMU. The point of the game is this obsession made the decisions too stark, all or nothing. Better to simply wreck a program, not destroy it.

What do I mean by wreck a program? The violations must strike at the program's ability to sustain a level of competitive excellence in the highly competitive environment. The USC sanctions demonstrate this in a way. They stripped titles and awards; but this is palliative. They took away bowl games; this matters; they cut a lot of scholarships; this matters profoundly. What they did not do but the NCAA needs to do more of is cut the TV money.

The reason the bowls, scholarships and TV matter is how it impacts recruiting. Programs and great coaches attract kids; but there are a fair number of good programs and a number of great coaches. Students will want to play for bowls, titles and TV exposure. The key impact  lies in the competitive recruiting disadvantages that sanctions generate. It becomes much harder for even great coaches to recruit top players if other great coaches can offer them bowls, TV exposure and scholarships. I know, I watched the Washington program stumble and stagger for years after its major probations.

Emmert can build upon the USC decision. The NCAA needs decisions that wreck programs; only wrecking programs will finally get coaches' attention. He has met with the barons of college football coaching to remind them that their own programs now lie at risk of carpet bombing just like USC. Finally the coaches, who are often more powerful than their putative bosses, college Presidents, now are vulnerable. When Nick Saban correctly calls agents pimps, he does so from self interest and outrage. Now  Emmert can harness that coaches' self interest as well as outrage to take on the agent and other issues.

It's time to act consistently, aggressive and massively against the programs; nothing else will change behavior. I will discuss this in the next post.

For years the NCAA enforcement lay supine; every now and it roused itself to  to take action, but never systematic and patterned. The enforcement staff remained a well intentioned backwater and with remarkably indifferent leadership and mediocre competence. My own experience arises from watching them botch a sure case against Washington coach Rick Neuheisel by not following their own rules. They turned a strong case into a multimillion dollar settlement with a corrupt coach on the basis of slipshod work. Programs worried about investigations but seldom feared them.

The new NCAA President Emmert can  change this by building on the USC success. He is radically altering the enforcement leadership structures. The number of investigators has risen to 23 from 12 in five years. The NCAA SWAT team to investigate the cesspool of college basketball recruiting and AAU teams has doubled; however that can be just a down payment given the magnitude of the problem. Emmert has made clear that he will continue to beef up the staff. More importantly he has removed the leadership obstacles to hiring a higher quality and more aggressive staff and legal counsel. The NCAA has been hamstrung by mediocre legal quality of its own staff and its outside representation for years.

Increasing staff quality, quantity and competence is critical. Emmert has made clear that even if he cuts the NCAA's staff, he will not touch enforcement. But that is only half the equation. The NCAA must create serious program wrecking penalties.

USC is the harbinger. The penalties put superstar coaches on notice that no one is immune. More importantly it let them know that not only will the NCAA "vacate" titles and games, but will aggressively chop scholarships. The vacated games did not matter to Florida State; the vacated games and title did not matter to Pete Carroll after he left USC. The vacated games and titles certainly have not stopped John Calipari.  No the vacated games are only a start. Take away  bowls, deny championships and above all reduce scholarships and reduce TV money and exposure; these strike at the heart of a program's ability to sustain itself against other ferocious competitors.

Another key for the new NCAA approach will be absolute accountability for head coaches. They all claim it for themselves to garner high salaries and adulation for their successes. But when something bad happens, suddenly the all-knowing coaches fall into denial mode. These "who me?" "I didn't know" attitudes pervade college sports. Just watch the comments of Rich Rodriquez at Michigan; Pete Carroll of USC  or Butch Davis at North Carolina.

The NCAA must demand absolute accountability from coaches. Creating a portfolio of a coach's history of academics and violations just dips into the water. It will be good to have a public record of academic and compliance success or failure. But no penalties attach to coaches. And no penalties follow them. To be blunt, if coaches win, they will be hired again regardless of the portfolio.

This new accountability that puts whole programs at risk will force coaches to follow up their own rhetoric. This kind of program future accountability will also force ADs and presidents to be more prudent when they hire coaches who can walk away but leave a program in shambles for years.

Enforcing higher standards and program crippling penalties will demand coaches match their rhetoric and power by taking responsibility for the athletes they recruit and build their reputations on. It will force them to protect the institutions they claim to be loyal to. It takes immense self deception and denial to ignore the problems around cheating tutors, agent money or excessive coaches. The program wrecking approaches will force the coaches to do what they should do. They would not accept from players the excuses they offer for themselves. 

Coaches are often beyond the effective control of Presidents and Boards. They usually have their own supporters on Boards limiting Presidents who try to control them. The NCAA has always had the potential to take high profile coaches on but been cowered by its own lack of competence and the need to preserve the TV deals that lionize and make marketable stars of coaches.

Cripple a few more programs. Not the death penalty, just wound them seriously, so the other programs can smell blood and circle around and tear them apart. A few more and the NCAA might once again be taken seriously as the guardian of the games.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Remember Football; Remember Race;: Review of Remember Titans

Football season begins. Years ago, football, especially college football, displaced baseball as the center of American sport obsession. It also became the locus for narratives America tells itself about itself through movies,

With the start of college football, I want to remember an iconic football movie central to America's sense of itself and its story about race relations, human relations and what sport can accomplish. In my ethics classes for our intercollegiate athletic program, students regularly use Remember the Titans as one of their iconic film movies. Why?

Remember the scene. America grapples with desegregation; war occurs in the streets, people die in the south, riots hit the cities. No one knows how the court ordered experience of integration will work. A few think of how the military has managed integration after being ordered. It shines as one example, imperfect, but real, where a relentless meritocracy and insistent commitment to common goals plus facing a common enemy united races in ways no where else in American society.

No whites wanted Alexandria, Virginia desegregated. A white enclave accustomed to sport dominance, its pride and joy school suddenly had to desgregate. Now I will go with the movie, not the history, for we know this story through the movie.

Remember the Titans hinges around the political spoils decision of the Alexandria School Board to appoint  black Herman Boone, Denzel Washington,  coach of its football team, the Titans. To do so they pushed aside a well loved and successful coach  Bill Yoast, Will Paton. Later we discover after rock throwing and fights, that the Board has declared that if Boone loses one game, they will replace him.

My point focuses upon its lesson about bringing together races; a very football, American, military lesson. Coach Boone exemplifies old school football and reminds me of my Fort Polk drill instructor. He launches a boot camp taking the team away from the chaos of the city to Gettysburg College for practice. When the white and black players get on separate busses, he stops them and in front of horrified parents demands that they sit on defense and offense buses regardless of race.

When the players self segregate he requires them to room with each other and learn and recite facts about each other publically. He subjects them to brutal debilitating two a days, sometimes three adays. Players vomiting; heat stroke hovers. Coach  Yoast warns against treating them badly, but Boone persists in his Bear Bryant imitation. Players suffer together; they hate the coach and hate each other. But slowly, uncertainly, survival and shared suffering bring them together as a team, even if it is against their crazed coach.

The crux lies in old school coaching, high demands, relentless pushing, humiliation and the promise of success. Boone is not an upbeat positive modern coach; he pounces on failure; humiliates players publically and exacts reprisal to motivate. Failure results in pain. "We will be perfect in every aspect of the game. You drop a pass, you run a mile. You miss a blocking assignment, you run a mile. You fumble the football, and I will break my foot off in your John Brown hind parts and then you will run a mile. Perfection. Let's go to work." 

The players struggle to survive and learn new systems. Like all football practices, violent competition competes with cooperation. Players fight, push shove because the stakes are high--they want to start--and the means are violent. Coaches have to manage it constantly and when the team grows, its own leaders will break up the fights and focus the anger on playing.

A midnight run leads the team to Gettysburg battlefield. Exhausted, lost, angery, Boone reminds them of the pain and loss of the battle. A battle they are still fighting on the team. "You listen, and you take a lesson from the dead. If we don't come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed, just like they were. I don't care if you like each other of not, but you will respect each other. And maybe... I don't know, maybe we'll learn to play this game like men." 

Behind the entire approach lies Machiavelli's maxim that common danger, common enemies will build common community across barriers.  The team must develop a commitment to perfection beyond its commitments to self, clan or race. For Boone success lies in the ability of players to see each other as companions in the quest for perfection and victory.

The whole approach depends upon absolute clarity that he plays the best talent, not by race. Football players are used to abusive coaches, not a good thing, but they will live with it because they believe it prepares them for the game. They will live with it if they believe the best players play.

Boone's ultimate success and credibility lies in his race blind assessment. He knows race pervades everything but must prove to the players that he plays by merit. It lies in the fact that he replaces a black player with a white player or a white player with a black player because of talent despite the mutual race based anger of the parents. When Paton asks him to take it easy, Boone replies with a rooted lesson that drives him and this dream of racial reconciliation, "Now I may be a mean cuss. But I'm the same mean cuss with everybody out there on that football field. The world don't give a damn about how sensitive these kids are, especially the young black kids. You ain't doin' these kids a favor by patronizing them. You're crippling them; You're crippling them for life."

The other side lies in the inability of this unity borne of shared suffering and common commitment to carry over into school and society. There simmering hatred and resentment and rejection in bars remain the norm. Playing together creates a possiblity for themselves, for the society, but does not transform it. But the players, for a moment, discover that black and white united in a common cause based upon  merit can come together. The same lesson as the military, the lesson of football and sport. It is real but isolated; bars, houses, parents, girlfriends reject the bond they have formed.

Coach Boone, who throws up before the first game, reminds himself, "it's only a game but I love it." Good to remember but we Americans take our games very very seriously as avatars of our identity and community, as morality tales of our own hopes, failure successes and as remembrances of times and moments of sorrow or triumph.

The lesson of football for live and race and America? This is not the fairy tale of Blind Side, but it involves a deeper level of conflict that football admits it cannot resolve in society at large. But the story remains--groups of persons of wildly diverse backgrounds and race will have conflict and anger. They will carry it with them into life and to each other. This will not be abolished. Neither will the racist structures of society go away because of football.

BUT. A common goal and a common enemy can bring them together. Moral competition for excellence and a relentless leader can demand that race be superceded by merit, but he or she must be utterly transparent in their demands and discipline and merit based promotion. Finally, intense badgering almost brutal physical demands coupled with intellectual demands can mold people together in common pain and suffering. Through shared pain comes unity and  the possibility of excellence and glory at the other end. Competition metamorphosizes into combat.

Remembering the Titans means remembering that race matters in America. It means to remember that it has not gone away. It also remembers and reminds that common pursuit of excellence, perfection, in Coach Boone's words, can bring people together across race. But this is not easy and takes constant effort by coach and player and maybe some day by society.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Achilles Revenge III: Change the Games

The new knowledge about damage to brains and self is too great. The cost to the personality of players over the long run is too great. The excuses to not change illusions. We need to change the rules of the footballs to protect the integrity of the game and the integrity of the players.

I am no expert and certainly have no panaceas, but I will suggest a few modest proposals to start the discussions. Remember, last year 300,000 concussions were reported in football alone. Other reports estimate that over 50 percent of the concussions go unreported and less than half the high school programs have trainers at games. I will focus upon American football, but we could look lots of areas. For instance, the level of concussions and brain trauma is rising in basketball. The main reason is that the players are too big for the size of court. Trying to drive on the old court amid the huge bodies leads to immense shoving, bumping, falling and head injuries. The answer would be simple: increase the size of the court to unclog the middle.

The key to addressing the brain trauma is to remember that it is the repetitive impact that matters. The persistent rattling of the brain generates the problems, not sudden traumatic impacts. The most immediate response has been to diagnose and get players out of the game when concussions occurs, but by then it is too late and does not address the aggregate impact. The changes need to be pervasive.

The first place to start would be practice. Alot of football practice can occur without hitting. The number of injuries in practice can rival those in games. In modern football, more and more time is needed in the classroom and mental preparation. Practices could occur that do not require helmets and head contact. Contact can be limited to body, not head. You could easily reduce head contact practices by 30 to 40 percent. Players would still internalize the knowledge and skills; they would still develop toughness and still have ample time to maim each other, but it would be more limited. This would especially help in the unregulated world of high school and club sports.

The second place is to get the player out of the game when an injury occurs. The NCAA has proposed changes to mandate much more aggressive testing of head trauma  during football and soccer games. The trainers and doctors must  be mandated to take a player out who presents trauma.  A new array of diagnostic tools are available to diagnose concussions definitively beyond pushing fingers in front of a player and asking them to count. This means moving away from the ethos that helped kill Lou Gehrig, "rub some dirt on it and get back in the game." Players will play hurt to prove themselves, to be loyal to their team; to live up to an image of being a warrior. The only way to stop this is take the decision away from the player and away from the coach. The coach has too much invested in keeping good players, even injured good players in the game. Many good coaches have played injured and expect this from their "warriors." 

The third place involves rule changes. I don't know rules enough, but changes in stances and blocking could limit the continuous exposure of heads on the linemen who face the most persistent brain pounding. The stance changes would change offenses, but nothing that would kill or destroy the game as we know it. Tweaks on the rules and more aggressive enforcement and penalties of spearing and head to head contact are already involving.

Finally we need to look at technologies and be willing to pay the cost. Ironically the emergence of modern technology has weaponized the human body in football. Wearing kelvar jackets, huge shoulder pads, helmets with eye shields dehumanize both the player and the opponent. The uniforms look like Halo warriors and encourage  a sense of invincibility among players. Efforts have been made to address heading in soccer but nothing so far reveals real protection. But in football we know better helmets can make a huge difference. Military technology and helmets have made immense strides under the pressure of CTE in Iraq. None of this is incorporated in the plastic technology in football helmets. The NFL can put in microphones, but not head protection. Cost stands in the way, just as it did when the NFL and NCAA pretended there was not a brain trauma problem. Things as simple as  mandating new mouthguards that  diffuse kinetic energy from hits in football can help. 

Purists, who don't play and don't risk permanent brain damage or ALS, will scream about diluting the game. They will talk about how we are sissyfying the game and taking away the courage and skill, somehow cheapening the game by limiting the risk. Let them. But they will not be the ones in their forties and fifties with reduced brain capacity and loss of identity. This is serious and it does cut at the heart of the game, a game of mind and organized violence. But the game relies upon the mind first which directs and organizes the violence.

These are the beginnings, but players associations, unions, doctors and the NCAA along with the intrepid reporters who have kept the NFL's feet to the fire need to keep up the drum beats. The NFL's answer to all this. Increase the number of games played! In the second week of play Stewart Bradley collapsed in front of 28 million FOX TV viewers clearly hurt; four minutes later the Eagles' coaching staff pushed him back into the game. Finally at the half he was diagnosed with a concussion, something anyone watching could see. The NFL can make public service announcements, but all the logics push them to play injured players unless they change the game.

The changes will face four challenges. The biggest will be money and the resistance of pro and college teams to spending the money on new technologies. The second will be the resistance of young gifted players at the prime of their physical and mental ability. They will resist feeling diminished in their warriorhood by practicing less or wearing new "sissy" technologies all of which aim to protect them when they are 50, but hard to figure when they are 22. Third, coaches, many of whom played and made it through without brain damage, will resist for the degradation on playing excellence that limitations on practices and stances or hits will impose on them. They will hate giving up control over keeping talented players in the game. Fourth the media networks will silently resist it as will their shills in the booth because they make money off the violence. Networks love the hits and terrifying moments when the stands hush and a player lies motionless, perhaps injured for life. Just as NASCAR  is addicted to crashes and hockey to fights, networks are addicted to ultra violence, not the beauty and intellectual chess and physical and mental adaptation players demonstrate.

All the opposition should be overriden. The press of the immediate gain, the press of mantaining an image of invincibility to yourself and the press of wanting the best players on the field  will prevent the on field actors from from taking the long term view about crippling effects that will occur long after the players have moved on.

We need to change the rules to protect the players from the game. In doing so we will remember these are games of humans,   not sacrificial pyres for humans.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Achilles Revenge II: Brain Trauma and the Footballs

The accumulating evidence on head injuries and long term brain damage poses an immense problem for  American and European footballs. The problem arises because the contact initiated and the impact on the brain seems so woven into the pattern of the sport. Imagine soccer without headers (it is possible but won't happen: imagine football without head contact; impossible), but something must be done.

The awful injuries pose the question: should we change the sports to protect safety. The problem deepens because these are injuries that pose serious problems down the line; they are not immediate like ACLs or torn labra, but accumulate insidiously in increasing brain damage. Even concussions, where the sports are focussing, are only symptomatic of the long term costs.

For instance look at the pictures of two brains--a healthy brain and the poisoned brain of a 26 year old NFL wide receiver  Chris Henry. He had no history of concussions but after months of increasingly erratic behavior, he died attempting to jump on a moving truck driven by his fiance. Henry's brain  is shot through with the poisoned proteins. The  repetitive impact and the additive effect of  toxic proteins generated by the trauma was destroying his brain. The proteins like tau proteins create brain tangles and inefficiencies and degradation of connections. People suffer impaired cognitive reasoning long before dementia, alzheimers or Lou Gehrig's sets in.

Everyone focuses upon concussions because they seem immediate and can sort of be diagnosed and have some protocols for recovery. But as ventilator ridden Steve Smith writes from on a computer using eye movement:     "I have hit people 40 to 50 times every week in practice, not to mention 50 to 70 times on game day 16 days a year, not to mention camp every year." In a computer generated voice, Smith asks, "When is enough enough? You have the old-school owners that say, 'That's how you make them tough.' I'd love to see them get out there and hit heads with guys that are bigger than them."

Two answers are given for not changing. First, "this is the game" and "the game entails physical risk, that is what makes it the game and demands courage and skill of players." Soccer depends for some of its critical moves and scoring upon heading. Football grows from the organized directed violence of bodies upon bodies which require heads to be involved. Second, players now know the risk and play with informed consent; players accept the risk and get amply rewarded for playing.

Both answers are illusions. Games evolve and change all the time. I can quote you writers who declared the end of football and baseball, for that matter, when players were forced to wear protective helmets. The forward pass has been modified and formations have been outlawed in American football from the beginning when the killing machine single wing was outlawed. Soccer spends immense effort policing actions that can bring injury to its players. So rules to protect players from injuries make perfect sense to protect the integrity of the game; eliminate temptations to unfair play to "take players out;" and to protect the investment of coaches and teams in players. Even NASCAR which so depends upon crashes as an intrinsic aspect of its appeal constantly jiggers rules to keep even playing fields and build in protections for drivers.

Second, the informed consent argument makes little sense for three reasons. First, most elite players begin playing at very early ages, long before anything resembling real consent is possible. They are driven as much by parents as their own joy at the game. Later accolades, status and team loyalty motivate  them. None of this supports free informed consent for 12-20 year olds. The brain damage begins as early as high school age. Second, many of the players in both footballs come from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds. This is their way out, either to college or a lucrative career. They have few options except to stay in dangerous dead end worlds, so "informed" consent for 16 year olds trying to get out and often carrying the hopes of their family fails. Third, humans regularly as a species underestimate  future losses relative to immediate gains. The idea of a header or tackle leading to irreparable brain impairment in your fifties, is just too far away for the vast majority of folks, let alone athletes, to plan around. It seems a reasonable risk to a 19 year old or a 26 year old player seeking to build a nest egg or help companions win.

Not only does informed consent fail as an answer, but the nature of the injuries are not just physical. This is not about arthritis and limited mobility, this means the personality of the player changes or is destroyed. We are talking not about injuries but destroying the personality of the person who is asked to make the choice, not a knee, leg or shoulder injury. Too much is at stake, the very assumption of informed consent--having a whole and reasoned personality--is destroyed by the additive trauma of CTE.

New protocols on concussions are not enough. We need to change the games.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Achilles Revenge I: Head Injury & Lou Gehrig's Disease

Lou Gehrig lives in life and legend as a classic Achilles figure. He achieved great glory and died young, too young. One of the greatest baseball players of all time, he was known as the Iron Horse for his relentless play and record setting game streak. At his height he amassed records and respect as the driver of the Yankee dynasty. Yet at the age of 36 at the height of his career, he was struck with a disease many believed to be amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS. It never made no sense, the disease, which slowly shuts down the organs of the body and still remains largely a mystery, generally strikes people much older and is a death sentence. He died in two years.

Brian Gumbel did us all a service with a special report detailing the possible relation between the early onset Lou Gehrig's disease and head trauma. Technically Gehrig's disease mimics ALS amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The disease involves a progressive shut down of all the body's organs until you die of suffocation. The only organ left untouched is the brain. A person watches in silent horror as his or her body disintegrates piece by piece leaving them with only a mind presiding over a decaying death sentence.

The disease is a death sentence and follows an inexorable fatal and painful course. It's etiology, besides a clear hereditary component, has eluded scientists especially the early opportunistic ALS. Now the research highlighted by Gumbel's team suggests that the same mechanisms that do brain damage to athletes from repetitive head injury may contribute to ALS formation.

Suddenly Gehrig's tragic demise makes sense. In a world without batting helmets, he had suffered 6 traumatic head injuries, several of which knocked him out for up to five minutes. Worse, as the Iron Horse he returned to play the next day after being knocked unconscious. We now know that brain trauma demands total rest of all mental activity and playing on only aggravates all the neurological damage caused by the accumulation of toxic proteins generated by the concussive blows.

The history of contested data upon concussions and the long term and short term impacts on players is still unfolding. After decades of resistance the football establishment has acknowledged the issue is real, not before hundreds of ex-college and pro football players suffered in silence and penury with early dementia, depression, Alzheimer and other illnesses brought on by consistent cucussive actions or accumulated head trauma what is known as  chronic traumatic encephalography CTE. It took congressional testimony, intrepid reporting by the Washington Post and a host of other factors.

Gumbel's team detailed the efforts of Dr. Ann McKee, a neurology professor at Boston University, to connect head trauma to this less evident but horrible fate. It turns out that one of the clear effects of concussive trauma upon athlete's brains is the existence of toxic proteins in the brain that later tangle and impair neural functioning in a wide variety of ways.

Dr.  McKee discovered  that in rare cases the toxic proteins slip through the brain membranes and enter the spinal chord, the controlling channels for all organ functions. The causal trail will be complicated and take more research, but for the first time in twenty years of looking, science points towards another horrifying consequence of continuous assault upon the brain. McKee's team  has asked permission to examine the brains and now spinal chords of players who died from ALS. The normal onset of ALS is mid sixties, but European soccer players, American Football players and boxers are struck in their thirties and forties and at rate 10-23 times the normal population.

As I gaped in horror at this story, Gumbel's team interviewed several players and wives who faced progressive degeneration from the disease. You could see the stark difference between the player such as Steve Smith Oakland running back and what his disease had reduced him to on a ventilator and speaking through a computer driven by the movement of his eyes. The story also pointed out how the same statistics and early onset of progressive organ degeneration may be related to CTE in European football, soccer. There players regularly whip their heads into balls careening above 60 miles per hour.

The science continues to accumulate and the roster of horrors visited upon football players, American and European, rises. Achilles revenge will strike and the football powers fend off the knowledge by focusing upon concussions as the culprit, when we know it goes far beyond.

The problem will not go away, it is woven into the fabric of the sports as seriously as destroying brains is woven into boxing.