Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Sunday, October 18, 2009 10:56 pm

The toll of the bell(-ringing)

This week’s New Yorker has an article in it by Malcolm Gladwell that, apparently prompted by the return of QB Michael Vick to the NFL after his prison term for dogfighting, asks how similar football and dogfighting are.

He argues that they are similar in that both dogs trained to fight and NFL players are “selected for gameness” (along with Marines and physicians) — their respective systems weed out those unwilling to continue trying to persevere even in the face of great pain and suffering. The dogs do it out of love for and devotion to their owners, which is why during dogfights, the owners maneuver around the pit to stay within their dogs’ fields of vision. The players do it for more complicated reasons — a mix of love of the game itself, camaraderie, money and a long list of other enticements, tangible and intangible.

The difference, of course, is that NFL players 1) have a choice and 2) are highly compensated — even those making the league minimum are making substantially more money than most Americans.

Until recently, or at least so we thought, there was one other difference: No dog, no matter how aggressive and well-trained, will live forever. Sooner or later, it will age or slow or just catch a bit of bad luck and go down to another dog. NFL players, on the other hand, almost all walk away from the game relatively intact, or so most fans think. (The less glamorous reality, which the NFL doesn’t talk much about, is that a large percentage of NFL players who play in the league any length of time leave with some sort of permanent injury or disability.)

And although there’s no conclusive proof, Gladwell writes, there is some disturbing evidence that NFL players as a group may be at far greater risk than the general population for a form of brain damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) because of the pounding their heads take during the course of a career. C.T.E. presents, as the doctors say, a lot like Alzheimer’s, but it’s caused by brain injury and the brain cells of its victims look different from those of Alzheimer’s patients. It gets worse over time. And as with Alzheimer’s, there’s no cure.

Two neuropathologists are looking at this particular question. One is Dr. Ann McKee, who is doing the neuropathology research associated with the long-running Framingham heart-disease study, which has been following a large group of patients for decades. She also is involved with the New England Centenarian Study, which looks at the brains of people who lived an extraordinarily long time. (“I’m looking at brains constantly,” McKee says.) In the course of her work, she has run across close to two dozen brains of former athletes — mostly football players, a couple of boxers.

The other is Dr. Bennet Omalu, who has found cases of C.T.E. in several former NFL players. Both are disturbed by their findings, although both also say they haven’t seen enough cases yet to decide anything.

The league also has been looking, and what it has found is disturbing:

… late last month the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research released the findings of an N.F.L.-funded phone survey of just over a thousand randomly selected retired N.F.L. players—all of whom had played in the league for at least three seasons. Self-reported studies are notoriously unreliable instruments, but, even so, the results were alarming. Of those players who were older than fifty, 6.1 per cent reported that they had received a diagnosis of “dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or other memory-related disease.” That’s five times higher than the national average for that age group. For players between the ages of thirty and forty-nine, the reported rate was nineteen times the national average. …

“A long time ago, someone suggested that the [C.T.E. rate] in boxers was twenty per cent,” McKee told me. “I think it’s probably higher than that among boxers, and I also suspect that it’s going to end up being higher than that among football players as well. Why? Because every brain I’ve seen has this [damage]. To get this number in a sample this small is really unusual, and the findings are so far out of the norm. I only can say that because I have looked at thousands of brains for a long time. This isn’t something that you just see. I did the same exact thing for all the individuals from the Framingham heart study. We study them until they die. I run these exact same proteins, make these same slides—and we never see this.”

McKee’s laboratory occupies a warren of rooms, in what looks like an old officers’ quarters on the V.A. campus. In one of the rooms, there is an enormous refrigerator, filled with brains packed away in hundreds of plastic containers. Nearby is a tray with small piles of brain slices. They look just like the ginger shavings that come with an order of sushi. Now McKee went to the room next to her office, sat down behind a microscope, and inserted one of the immunostained slides under the lens.

“This is Tom McHale,” she said. “He started out playing for Cornell. Then he went to Tampa Bay. He was the man who died of substance abuse at the age of forty-five. I only got fragments of the brain. But it’s just showing huge accumulations of tau [a protein that damages brain cells, found in both Alzheimer’s and C.T.E. patients and detectable only at autopsy — Lex] for a forty-five-year-old—ridiculously abnormal.”

She placed another slide under the microscope. “This individual was forty-nine years old. A football player. Cognitively intact. He never had any rage behavior. He had the distinctive abnormalities. Look at the hypothalamus.” It was dark with tau. She put another slide in. “This guy was in his mid-sixties,” she said. “He died of an unrelated medical condition. His name is Walter Hilgenberg. Look at the hippocampus. It’s wall-to-wall tangles. Even in a bad case of Alzheimer’s, you don’t see that.” The brown pigment of the tau stain ran around the edge of the tissue sample in a thick, dark band. “It’s like a big river.”

McKee got up and walked across the corridor, back to her office. “There’s one last thing,” she said. She pulled out a large photographic blowup of a brain-tissue sample. “This is a kid. I’m not allowed to talk about how he died. He was a good student. This is his brain. He’s eighteen years old. He played football. He’d been playing football for a couple of years.” She pointed to a series of dark spots on the image, where the stain had marked the presence of something abnormal. “He’s got all this tau. This is frontal and this is insular. Very close to insular. Those same vulnerable regions.” This was a teen-ager, and already his brain showed the kind of decay that is usually associated with old age. “This is completely inappropriate,” she said. “You don’t see tau like this in an eighteen-year-old. You don’t see tau like this in a fifty-year-old.”

McKee is a longtime football fan. She is from Wisconsin. She had two statuettes of Brett Favre, the former Green Bay Packers quarterback, on her bookshelf. On the wall was a picture of a robust young man. It was McKee’s son—nineteen years old, six feet three. If he had a chance to join the N.F.L., I asked her, what would she advise him? “I’d say, ‘Don’t. Not if you want to have a life after football.’ ”

At the core of the C.T.E. research is a critical question: is the kind of injury being uncovered by McKee and Omalu incidental to the game of football or inherent in it?

(I should point out that both researchers say that other factors, such as genetics and steroid use, may well figure into this phenomenon — neither is drawing any straight-line conclusions at this point.)

As it happens, I read this article just last night, so it was still very much on my mind as I watched today’s Panthers-Buccaneers game.

Just seconds before halftime, the Panthers punted, and the Bucs’ returner, Clifton Smith, signaled for a fair catch. When a punt returner signals for a fair catch, that means he’s supposed to be allowed to catch the ball, and then his team starts its next play from that spot — he doesn’t run with it once he catches it. In return for his not running, not only is the punting team not allowed to tackle that returner, for the past few years they haven’t even been allowed within a 3-yard “halo” around such a returner.

But on this play, the Panthers’ Dante Wesley, the “gunner” (first guy to sprint downfield on punts to try to tackle the returner), launched himself into Clifton Smith, who, having signaled for a fair catch, was watching the ball coming down out of the sky and had no idea what Wesley was doing. Wesley slammed into him at full speed, appearing to catch him under the chin with his shoulder pad and knocking him out cold. (You can see the play here.)

Smith suffered a concussion — he “got his bell rung,” as the players sometimes say — and did not return. Wesley was ejected and likely will be fined by the league. For such a blatant and excessive hit — not only running into Smith, but also leaving his feet to do so, an additional violation of the rules — he might even be suspended. (I hope he is. What he did came as close to assault with a deadly weapon as an unarmed man is ever likely to come without martial-arts training.)

Now, you might suppose that it’s hits like that that cause the kind of brain trauma these researchers are finding. And they can. But research just down the road in Chapel Hill suggests a more disturbing problem for those of us who play and/or love football:

Take the experience of a young defensive lineman for the University of North Carolina football team, who suffered two concussions during the 2004 season. His case is one of a number studied by Kevin Guskiewicz, who runs the university’s Sports Concussion Research Program. For the past five seasons, Guskiewicz and his team have tracked every one of the football team’s practices and games using a system called HITS, in which six sensors are placed inside the helmet of every player on the field, measuring the force and location of every blow he receives to the head. Using the HITS data, Guskiewicz was able to reconstruct precisely what happened each time the player was injured.

“The first concussion was during preseason. The team was doing two-a-days,” he said, referring to the habit of practicing in both the morning and the evening in the preseason. “It was August 9th, 9:55 A.M. He has an 80-g hit to the front of his head. About ten minutes later, he has a 98-g acceleration to the front of his head.” To put those numbers in perspective, Guskiewicz explained, if you drove your car into a wall at twenty-five miles per hour and you weren’t wearing your seat belt, the force of your head hitting the windshield would be around 100 gs: in effect, the player had two car accidents that morning. He survived both without incident. “In the evening session, he experiences this 64-g hit to the same spot, the front of the head. Still not reporting anything. And then this happens.” On his laptop, Guskiewicz ran the video from the practice session. It was a simple drill: the lineman squaring off against an offensive player who wore the number 76. The other player ran toward the lineman and brushed past him, while delivering a glancing blow to the defender’s helmet. “Seventy-six does a little quick elbow. It’s 63 gs, the lowest of the four, but he sustains a concussion.”

“The second injury was nine weeks later,” Guskiewicz continued. “He’s now recovered from the initial injury. It’s a game out in Utah. In warmups, he takes a 76-g blow to the front of his head. Then, on the very first play of the game, on kickoff, he gets popped in the earhole. It’s a 102-g impact. He’s part of the wedge.” He pointed to the screen, where the player was blocking on a kickoff: “Right here.” The player stumbled toward the sideline. “His symptoms were significantly worse than the first injury.” Two days later, during an evaluation in Guskiewicz’s clinic, he had to have a towel put over his head because he couldn’t stand the light. He also had difficulty staying awake. He was sidelined for sixteen days.

When we think about football, we worry about the dangers posed by the heat and the fury of competition. Yet the HITS data suggest that practice—the routine part of the sport—can be as dangerous as the games themselves. We also tend to focus on the dramatic helmet-to-helmet hits that signal an aggressive and reckless style of play. Those kinds of hits can be policed. But what sidelined the U.N.C. player, the first time around, was an accidental and seemingly innocuous elbow, and none of the blows he suffered that day would have been flagged by a referee as illegal. Most important, though, is what Guskiewicz found when he reviewed all the data for the lineman on that first day in training camp. He didn’t just suffer those four big blows. He was hit in the head thirty-one times that day. What seems to have caused his concussion, in other words, was his cumulative exposure. And why was the second concussion—in the game at Utah—so much more serious than the first? It’s not because that hit to the side of the head was especially dramatic; it was that it came after the 76-g blow in warmup, which, in turn, followed the concussion in August, which was itself the consequence of the thirty prior hits that day, and the hits the day before that, and the day before that, and on and on, perhaps back to his high-school playing days.

In technological terms, C.T.E. ain’t a bug, it’s a feature.

What football must confront, in the end, is not just the problem of injuries or scientific findings. It is the fact that there is something profoundly awry in the relationship between the players and the game.“Let’s assume that Dr. Omalu and the others are right,” Ira Casson, who co-chairs an N.F.L. committee on brain injury, said. “What should we be doing differently? We asked Dr. McKee this when she came down. And she was honest, and said, ‘I don’t know how to answer that.’ No one has any suggestions—assuming that you aren’t saying no more football, because, let’s be honest, that’s not going to happen.”

I hope we fans — and I am definitely including myself when I say “we” because I love pro football, ran a fantasy-league team for 18 years and am probably overly invested in how well the Panthers do — are going to be able to live with the knowledge I expect we’ll be getting as this research progresses. Because based on what we’ve seen so far, we’re likely to come to two conclusions: The players we love to watch will be at substantially, if not hugely, increased risk for dementia as they age, and the damage won’t stop until we stop paying to watch what causes it.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009 9:53 pm

“Revenge of the Nerds” for the new millennium. Only not.

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 9:53 pm
Tags: , ,

ESPN’s Bill Simmons interviews Malcolm Gladwell (author of “The Tipping Point,” “Blink” and “Outliers”) and learns that Gladwell’s luck, defined as chance + preparation, let him down when he needed it most:

Let’s set the record straight on Jennifer Aniston. She was not hitting on me. I think she was bored because her friends hadn’t arrived yet. She just wanted to make conversation. And what was my excuse? I don’t really have one. I was trying to work, and I wasn’t wearing my glasses, and who on earth thinks Jennifer Aniston is going to sit down next to them in some random cafe in Miami and start chatting away? So I gave her that don’t-bother-me glare, and then about five minutes passed and I thought to myself, “You know, she was really cute.” And another five minutes passed and I thought, “You know, she looks really familiar.” And another five minutes passed and I thought, “You idiot.” And by then it was too late, of course. The window of opportunity for a woman like that is 45 seconds, max. By the time I got the check, I think she’d already started dating John Mayer.

(h/t: Sharpedo)

Saturday, December 13, 2008 3:02 pm

Predicting job success when it counts most

Filed under: Y'all go read this — Lex @ 3:02 pm
Tags: , ,

How do you tell when someone you’re thinking about hiring will succeed in the job you’re hiring for? In my experience hiring reporters for the paper, past success — as measured not necessarily by awards and prizes but by the caliber of work done (including but not limited to the four or five clips we typically ask for from applicants) and the creativity and leadership shown in past problem-solving — usually is a very good indicator. And even that package of attributes is not totally reliable.

And even in my line of work, a lot is riding on the outcome. Recruiting and hiring for an open reporting job costs a significant percentage of what we pay in salary and benefits in a year. In some other lines of work, it can run 40 to 50 percent of the position’s annual compensation.

So imagine the kind of money riding on the choice of a quarterback for an NFL team. And then imagine the nonfinancial but infinitely more important issues riding on the choice of a teacher.

Malcolm “Freakonomics” Gladwell didn’t just imagine it, he went looking for the recruiting answer in both lines of work. And in those lines of work, he found, predicting success is a whole lot more of a crap shoot than in my line of work:

[Pro scout Dan] Shonka began to talk about Tim Couch, the quarterback taken first in that legendary [quarterback] draft of 1999. Couch set every record imaginable in his years at the University of Kentucky. “They used to put five garbage cans on the field,” Shonka recalled, shaking his head, “and Couch would stand there and throw and just drop the ball into every one.” But Couch was a flop in the pros. It wasn’t that professional quarterbacks didn’t need to be accurate. It was that the kind of accuracy required to do the job well could be measured only in a real N.F.L. game.

Because the game of pro football is so much faster than the college game, particularly on defense, it’s much harder for quarterbacks, even the best in the college game, to succeed in the pros. Part of that difference, he observes, has to do with the offensive strategies college teams typically employ as opposed to the pro teams. But those strategy differences are driven by the speed of pro defenders — even the big, heavy ones. And you don’t have to be a football expert, or even to watch a lot of games, to see the difference.

In teaching, where the stakes are immeasurably higher even if the money involved doesn’t suggest so, there’s good news for parents, teachers and students: We’re learning a lot more about what is likely to make a successful teacher than pro scouts are about what makes a college QB likely to succeed in the NFL, as this examination of a recording of a teacher in action shows:

Then there was the superstar—a young high-school math teacher, in jeans and a green polo shirt. “So let’s see,” he began, standing up at the blackboard. “Special right triangles. We’re going to do practice with this, just throwing out ideas.” He drew two triangles. “Label the length of the side, if you can. If you can’t, we’ll all do it.” He was talking and moving quickly, which [Bob] Pianta [the dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education] said might be interpreted as a bad thing, because this was trigonometry. It wasn’t easy material. But his energy seemed to infect the class. And all the time he offered the promise of help. If you can’t, we’ll all do it. In a corner of the room was a student named Ben, who’d evidently missed a few classes. “See what you can remember, Ben,” the teacher said. Ben was lost. The teacher quickly went to his side: “I’m going to give you a way to get to it.” He made a quick suggestion: “How about that?” Ben went back to work. The teacher slipped over to the student next to Ben, and glanced at her work. “That’s all right!” He went to a third student, then a fourth. Two and a half minutes into the lesson—the length of time it took that [previously examined] subpar teacher to turn on the computer—he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.

“In a group like this, the standard m.o. would be: he’s at the board, broadcasting to the kids, and has no idea who knows what he’s doing and who doesn’t know,” Pianta said. “But he’s giving individualized feedback. He’s off the charts on feedback.” Pianta and his team watched in awe.

Writ large, the inability to predict success accurately during the hiring process is probably a significant drag on the economy. But if you’re a parent, you probably care a lot less about that than about how well one or a handful of teachers can help your kids learn (and learn how to learn). And if we’re not expert, at least we’re getting better.

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