What Do Football and a Chainsaw Have in Common?

This is a reprint of a January 2014 post.

Once again it’s Super Bowl time and the end of this season’s dual opportunity for players to knock themselves silly, and for fans to damage their hearing.

The former is finally being treated as a serious matter. In the January 25 New York Times, Juliet Macur wrote a heartbreaking profile of former hall of fame offensive tackle Rayfield Wright and his descent into dementia. In the article, she says that Wright’s first blow to the head came in 1969 during a game between his team, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams defensive end, face to face with Wright, taunted him and then, as the article describes it, slapped “his dinner-plate-size right hand violently against Wright’s helmet.” Wright tumbled backward from the blow and was knocked out cold. Forty years on he realizes he probably suffered a concussion, just one of many in 13 seasons with the Cowboys.

But to get to the pros, Wright was undoubtedly knocked on the head repeatedly through high school and college years (where he also played basketball). Wright is just 68 but he suffers from seizures. His attention span is too short for him to watch the Super Bowl, he says, and his dementia is severe enough that he can’t be left alone. He’s just one of 4500 players who have sued the NFL, contending that the league knew about the dangers of repeated hits to the head. This month a judge rejected the $765 million settlement offer, saying it was too small.

But there’s a related issue, and this one applies to players and fans alike. Noise. In the December 1st playoff game between the Seattle Seahawks and the New Orleans Saints, the noise level in the stadium broke the record for the loudest outdoor sports stadium. The decibel level hit 137.6 during the second quarter and was proudly announced on the Seahawks’ Twitter page. This is loud (louder than a chainsaw at close range and almost as loud as a jet engine taking off over your head) and sustained. If not continuously at 137.6, the noise remained close to this level throughout the three-plus hours of the game.

The Seahawks have a deaf player, fullback Derrick Coleman. He wears hearing aids, though presumably not on the field, where their inability to filter background noise would be unbearable. He’s got an advantage over his teammates, in that he can lip read the quarterback’s plays. The other players hope for the best. He can’t hear the crowd noise but he can feel it. “I don’t know why I don’t get pain in my ears like everybody else,” adding that he can feel the vibrations.

That pain in the ears that “everybody else” is enduring – not just players but others on the field and fans in the stands – is literally deafening. The damage done by exposure to that kind of noise is permanent. You may recover your hearing after a few hours or a day, but the hair cells can be fatally damaged. Sharon Kujawa and Charles Liberman at Harvard have found that apparently temporary damage to the hair cells from exposure to noise can in fact be permanent and lead to perceptual problems like difficulty hearing in noise, tinnitus, or hyperacusis (extreme sensitivity to noise).

Men are twice as likely to develop hearing loss as women. As far as I know, no one has linked this to sports but it makes sense that there may be a connection, just as there is a connection between greater incidence of hearing loss in men and the fact that men traditionally have been more likely to work in noisy industrial jobs.

 And finally, to bring this back to Rayfield Wright and the Super Bowl, scientists have measured a clear correlation between hearing loss and dementia. I don’t know if Wright has hearing loss, but was certainly exposed to excessive levels of noise during his career as well as violent blows to the head.

There is a complicating factor. Men are less likely to suffer full-blown dementia. A 2012 Mayo clinic study found that men are far more likely to develop early stage cognitive impairment, but for some reason their mild impairment was less likely to develop into full blown dementia than in women.

I’m pretty far from my expertise level here, but I can say with certainty that pro football can be damaging to your health. It doesn’t have to be that way. Better helmets can offset the dangers of concussion, and ear plugs can offset the dangers of hearing loss.

For all the glorification of crowd noise — the “12th Man” — at home games, very few articles go on to say that without hearing protection you may well be setting yourself up for future hearing issues. Drew Brees, the Saints’ quarterback, set a memorable good example at the 2010 Super Bowl by outfitting his one year old son with noise cancelling headphones. Adult fans are so far not following his example.

First published on January 27, 2014 by Katherine Bouton in What I Hear

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