Knock Yourself Out

There are two ways to accomplish this: join the army or play American football. What? you say, you don’t see the equivalence between these two choices. Be patient. You will soon see it.

Strap on your Advanced Combat Helmet constructed of a thermoset resin shell bonded to Kevlar as you take a ride in a Humvee along some benighted highway in some godforsaken place on the other side of the world…

Suddenly, there is a low “pow,” and a dull thump in the center of your chest. Your vehicle has just rolled over an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), triggering a “primary blast effect” or shock wave, a balloon of rapidly expanding gases that compresses the surrounding air and moves outward from the detonation faster than the speed of sound. This shock wave enters your brain, passing so rapidly that it has come and gone before you have even had time to move your head. But in this blink of time it has forever disrupted the connections between your brain cells.

You have just suffered a TBI or Traumatic Brain Injury that will affect you for the rest of your life, causing headaches, seizures, motor disorders, sleep disorders, dizziness, visual disturbances, ringing in the ears, mood changes, and cognitive, memory, and speech difficulties.

Now strap on a slightly different kind of helmet, this one a hard plastic shell weighing six pounds with thick padding on the inside, a facemask made of one or more plastic-coated metal bars, and a chinstrap. This time you are running along a slightly different field of battle carrying an egg-shaped ball under your arm.

Suddenly, another identical helmet slams into the front of yours at the equivalent of 700 mph carrying 1,600 pounds of force, whipping your head backwards on its brain stem. Your brain begins to twist and spin inside the cerebrospinal fluid that cushions it, causing the nerve fibers in your skull to stretch and rotate, forever disrupting the connections between your brain cells as it causes your gray matter to rock dangerously backwards and forwards, repeatedly ricocheting off your skull. It feels as if your brain were a bowl of spaghetti suddenly flung out of an airplane.

Helmet-to-helmet head-on football hits like the one we have just described can reach between 100 and 150 on the G-force scale (for comparison, consider that an F-16 fighter jet rolling in a turn has a G-force load of 9).

Blows to the side of the head are even more dangerous, triggering a rotational concussion that can cause considerable structural damage. As your body recoils, your brain continues swirling back and forth before finally oscillating to a stop.

But whatever the precise effects in your case, we are safe to say that you have just suffered a severe concussion or TBI for Traumatic Brain Injury, that will affect you for the rest of your life, causing headaches, seizures, motor disorders, sleep disorders, dizziness, visual disturbances, ringing in the ears, mood changes, and cognitive, memory, and speech difficulties.

According to a 2017 study on brains of deceased gridiron football players, 99% of tested brains of NFL players, 88% of CFL players, 64% of semi-professional players, 91% of college football players, and 21% of high school football players had various stages of TBI. Players still alive are not able to be tested.

David Stansfield is a former PBS writer-producer and the author of “Take Nothing For Granted,” a thriller set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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