Sunday, September 25, 2011

Head Trauma And ALS

One of our ongoing themes here at OS is a running commentary on football and head trauma. I remain proud that in our tiny corner of the internet we were doing this before it got cool.

Steve Gleason recently revealed he has ALS. He's a folk hero in New Orleans (I had no idea about this before this morning) and will be the honorary captain for today's game. It is difficult to reconcile our great passion for football with the terrible costs that the game incurs.

Six months before Gleason's diagnosis a team of researchers from Boston University reported a link between an ALS-type disease and the repetitive head trauma suffered by some athletes.

Some peers say the study's sample size -- two former football players and a former boxer -- is insufficient to draw accurate conclusions, but evidence shows ALS strikes athletes in far greater numbers than the general population.


A 2005 paper found that Italian professional soccer players had developed the disease at rates about six times higher than normal.

The disease strikes about two in 100,000 people, which means only two or three NFL players since 1970 should have been afflicted. BU researchers identified 14 former NFL players since 1960 as having been diagnosed with ALS, a total about eight times more than what would be expected among U.S. men of similar ages. Perrin said his research shows Gleason would be the 27th former NFL player identified with the disease.

Most experts believe brain trauma is not solely responsible for diseases like ALS or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE. Those afflicted probably have genetic factors leading to susceptibility, with concussions serving as a catalyst.

"You have people in both camps," Gleason said. "But it's getting harder and harder to say that there are no repercussions from head trauma in the NFL or in football. You can't say that anymore."


  1. It's good to discuss these issues. Two quibbles:

    1) Statistical clustering is a guarantee in some sports, by definition, not necessarily a sign of outliers. See 'cancer clusters' for more details.

    2) 14 != 8x3. In 10 years more time, no less.

    3) As well all know, correlation is not causation. Perhaps the same genetic makeup that allows soccer players and football players to be bigger, faster, etc, also have the same markers as ALS. How do you sort out those possibilities from the sample set? I don't know.

    But yes, well ahead of the curve here.


  2. >>>How do you sort out those possibilities from the sample set?<<<

    It starts with getting grants for more research, which can pretty much only be done as a result of findings like these. Agree that it could be several things, but without findings like these, we don't have a basis to fund additional studying and further looking for links like these.

  3. Agreed, obvs, about more research. But that doesn't answer the question about how do you find a 'control' set that's is built like Ray Lewis, fast like Ray Lewis, but doesn't want to play football or boxing -- but ALSO has the same genetic makeup as the real Ray Lewis.

    Clearly there's some 'aggression' factor involved in wanting to hit people for a living as well, or a ball with your head. I just mean research $$ or not, it will be hard to structure a control set that is predominantly equivalent to NFLers/boxers. imho.

    Do you sample 'aggressive' people from all walks of life? Muggers, boxing, HF traders, military leaders? I don't know.



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