Friday, February 01, 2013

Football Vs Rugby, Bare-knuckle Boxing, and Barefoot Running

What does American football, modern boxing and long-distance running all have in common?

Brain damage.

I jest (or at least leave room for plausible deniability). What all these sports have in common is that they've added increasingly space-aged padding over the years in an alleged attempt to make the sport safer which has resulted in making the sport more injury prone, debilitating and dangerous.

The latest media brouhaha is over the apparent brain damage caused by playing in the NFL. It's like the fancier they make them helmets and padding the worse things get.

Why does that sound familiar?

Let us start with that most gentlemanly of sports: pounding the hell out of someone with your fists. Augmenting the human hand, which, with its many fine bones, is frankly better suited to intricate tasks like typing on a keyboard than as a blunt instrument, is nothing new. The Boxer of Quirinal wore caestūs which look pretty fearsome and obviously protected the hand and allowed a boxer to deliver a much more punishing blow.

Bare knuckle boxing might seem more barbaric than boxing with gloves, but that's because it causes more superficial cuts to the head which tends to bleed a lot due to the high localized blood pressure (finger cuts bleed like crazy for the same reason). The reality is that it's not possible to bounce an opponent's brain around inside his skull with one's bare fists. To quote from this (admittedly unsourced) article in the Independent:
By contrast, the last bare-knuckle heavyweight contest in the US in 1897 dragged on into the 75th round. Since gloves spread the impact of a blow, the recipient of a punch is less likely to be blinded, have their teeth knocked out or their jaw broken. However, gloves do not lessen the force applied to the brain as it rattles inside the skull from a heavy blow. In fact, they make matters worse by adding 10oz to the weight of the fist.

A full-force punch to the head is comparable to being hit with a 12lb padded wooden mallet travelling at 20mph. Gerald McClellan took around 40 such blows over the course of his world title fight against Nigel Benn in 1995. Even the most hardened spectators were shocked by its brutality.
The same basic principle applies to modern American football compared to its cousin rugby. Rugby players have to hit with their shoulders not their heads. This is not to say that rugby is perfectly safe, just that it has less long-term damage to the brain, and perhaps to the rest of the body as well.

And as anyone who's heard of the barefoot/minimalist shoe movement knows, there is strong reason to suspect that these increasingly expensive padded shoes that people are wearing to run in are the source of all sorts of problems, mainly from heel-striking. The shoe industry's (Big Shoe!) solution has been to come up with even more expensively padded shoes which has benefited their stockholders more than their customers.

Imagine if bull-riding was made 'safer' by participants wearing fully padded body armor and super helmets. The sport might soar in popularity as it was made more accessible to people who weren't insane, and professionals might keep at it until they were in their fifties. There would no doubt be a hell of a lot more brain trauma.

Eat real food and play real sports. If you want to smash into another human at high speed, do it without padding if you value your brain, or at least drop it after high school. We are all kind of brain-damaged in high school, anyway.

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