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Head injuries in sports run the gamut from tragic to reckless

The incident involving pitcher Brandon McCarthy, the former NFL players left crippled by the game and the overmatched colleges putting young men at risk just for a big payday show the reality of head injuries more than ever.

September 11, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Brandon McCarthy was struck in the head by a line drive in a game against the Angels.
Brandon McCarthy was struck in the head by a line drive in a game against the… (Doug Duran / MCT )

Heads have been in the sports news recently, and not happily.

Oakland Athletics pitcher Brandon McCarthy took a line drive off the bat of the Angels' Erick Aybar last week and had surgery to reduce swelling around a skull fracture. Those are always scary words when it comes to a head, anybody's head: surgery to reduce swelling.

Thoughts quickly raced to that day in 1957, when star left-hander Herb Score of the Cleveland Indians took a line drive in the right eye off the bat of Gil McDougald of the New York Yankees. Bones were fractured and Score's vision was compromised enough that his pitching career was never the same.

Score died in 2008, at 75, after spending 34 years as the celebrated broadcast voice of the Indians. His newspaper friends were known to tease him that he had suffered just enough brain damage to qualify him for broadcast work.

There was no joking in the aftermath of the injury to McCarthy. The Angels' Torii Hunter, a friend of McCarthy's, said that the moment it happened, the wind went out of the sails of both teams. Aybar stood in silence at first base for a long time as McCarthy was being administered to, even though he had been called out on the play when an infielder scooped up the ball and threw to first base.

As McCarthy recovers, it is hard not to ponder some heady stuff on the NFL front.

Many newspapers, including The Times, put a story on their front page about a study saying that NFL players with five seasons or more of competition are four times more likely to die of Alzheimer's disease or

amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Head trauma, football's dirty little secret forever, is being analyzed from all angles. It always made sense that people who were hit in the head a lot may pay the price for that later. A Tulane player is paying dearly right now. Devon Walker may be left paralyzed after a head-to-head hit while making a tackle Saturday.

It has taken the high-profile suicides of two former NFL stars, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, to really slap people in the face. Medical studies published in journals and doctors' warnings have nowhere near the impact of two famous athletes putting guns to their chest and pulling the trigger, with the knowledge that that will allow study of their still-intact brains.

The NFL is cornered on this issue. A huge group of former players, more than 3,000, is suing on the grounds that the NFL gave no warnings when it should have known, has known and continues to know that serious neurological problems could result from playing the game.

There is no question that the later life of many NFL players has been badly compromised by head injuries suffered during their playing days. All you have to do is attend one of the several current gatherings of retired NFL players and observe men you remembered as young, strong and healthy, struggling to get out of chairs or finish sentences.

Establishing responsibility is the sport's stickiest wicket. It's like one of those TV mystery shows. Who knew and when did they know it? And once they knew it, what did they do, or how did they cover up what they knew? Or did they?

Sadly, it is the kind of thing that will make thousands of lawyers millions of dollars before it's over. And once it ends, probably with a now-young Roger Goodell pushing his walker into court to testify, all of those who fought this battle will be long gone and deprived of seeing a tangible outcome.

Speaking directly to the multiple layers of emotion and vagueness in this NFL issue was the interestingly timed NFL announcement the same day as the announcement of the study by the journal Neurology. The NFL said it would make a $30-million donation to the National Institutes of Health for a study evaluating "serious medical conditions prominent in athletes and relevant to the general population." It was the largest philanthropic donation made by the NFL in its 92 years.

Are we to interpret this to mean that the NFL really didn't know and now, facing ex-players' lawsuits and increasing public questioning, has become serious about finding out? Is $30 million a crafty legal investment against future court claims that will scream malice? Or is this a matter of the greatest sports public relations machine in the history of mankind doing what it does?

We can only ponder.

What we do know, on our topic of heads, is that one college president failed to use hers the last few weeks.

Dr. Cheryl Davenport Dozier of Savannah State in Georgia was in charge while her grossly overmatched football team took two embarrassing and dangerous beatings at the hands of powerhouses Oklahoma State and Florida State. Oklahoma State won, 84-0, and Florida State, 55-0. The Florida State game was called because of threatening weather in the third quarter. Too bad it took thunder and lightning to do what common sense should have. Savannah State reportedly received $860,000 for playing these two games.

Is that where the term "blood money" comes from?

We bow our heads in prayer for Brandon McCarthy. We scratch our heads in bewilderment over the NFL.

And we shake our heads in disgust over Savannah State.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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