Posted by: mdegeorge | June 12, 2011

Weekly Diagnosis: June 12

The Diagnosis is back after a several-week hiatus brought on by a combination of vacation and illness (thankfully not at the same time). But it’s been a busy week nonetheless, thanks to an interesting plan in the world of college football, a popularly tainted excuse and trouble for one of the Stanley Cup playoffs’ breakout stars.

Nathan Horton. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Drinking to your health

It’s sweltering hot outside. The pavement beneath your feel feels ready to melt into a tar-like goo. You’ve just finished a marathon, broiling on the asphalt for almost three non-stop hours of punishment. As you collapse in exhaustion just past the finish line, attended to by volunteers and health advisors, what’s the first beverage you reach for to replenish your depleted fluids? It’s an O’Doul’s, of course.

That’s what was revealed this week by the Department of Preventative and Rehabilitative Sports Medicine of the Technische Universitaet Muenchen at Klinikum rechts der Isar (Technical University Munich’s hospital) in one of the most comprehensive and well-named studies on marathon runners’ health ever conducted. The study, creatively titled “Be-MaGIC” for “beer, marathons, genetics, inflammation, and the cardiovascular system,” found that for some 277 test subjects in the weeks before and after participating in the 2009 Munich Marathon, health was improved by small aromatic compounds called polyphenols. This being Bavaria, the most polyphenol-rich substance around for runners’ consumption was wheat beer, the non-alcoholic version of which was given to the experimental group.

The molecules at the root of this health craze – and many others – are polyphenols, organic molecules of various sizes that contain multiple phenol (think: benzene with a hydroxyl group) rings. These chemical occur naturally in plant products. They are responsible for more anti-oxidant activity than vitamins in our daily diets and are what makes things like tea, various superfruits, cocoa and red wine so desirable as health boosters.

In the marathon runners, polyphenols helped dampen the rampant inflammatory response that makes endurance athletes more susceptible to illnesses such as upper respiratory infections. The refocusing of the body’s natural defenses increased immunity in test subjects and closed what is known as the “open window” in which rundown athletes are most vulnerable to illness.

It’s not likely we’ll see German wiessbier replacing Gatorade on the sidelines of major sports competitions or the gym bags of kids anytime soon. But it is an easy, naturally-occurring way to get a much needed immune boost, for athletes and non-athletes alike.

Kicking out kick-offs in college football

The recent crackdown on head injuries in the NFL has turned the once vital kick-off into the third-most pursued entity in the game behind late hits and James Harrison. Rule changes during the lockout, ones I wasn’t terribly fond of, were put in place to limit the intensity of frontal impacts incurred during kick coverage while also limiting the impact the play has on the outcome of the game. In the college game, however, one coach is for banning kickoffs all together.

That coach, unsurprisingly, is Rutgers’ head man Greg Schiano. He’s seen the devastating effect of kickoffs first-hand with the spinal cord injury suffered by defensive lineman Eric LeGrand in October.

Schiano’s idea isn’t completely outlandish. Instead of a kick-off, Schiano would have what is essentially a fourth-and-15 at a team’s own 30-yard line to start halves and after scores. The team still has the opportunity to run a fake play, much like an on-side kick, if it wishes to retain possession of the kick.

Schiano’s proposal, which was reported by the Newark Star-Ledger, also found support from Dr. Vin McInerney, the chairman of New Jersey’s Committee on Medical Aspects of Sports, a group which also has advanced a proposal to eliminate kick-offs in high school football starting as soon as the fall.

The reports, both of which were handled by Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi, unsurprisingly engendered plenty of vitriol from the masses. But Politi allows Schiano and McInerney to address those concerns, ranging from criticism about legislating hitting out of the game to the logistics of blocking the new punt-offs.

Statistically, the differences would be small, though it could be skewed by certain factors such as a team that is excellent at blocking punts or a punter who used to be a quarterback for fake purposes. Schiano’s idea is far from taking root, but for all the traditionalists whose eventual opposition the Rutgers’ coach is counting on, it’s a start that the idea, blasphemous though it may seem, is out there and the world somehow hasn’t ended.

Talk about a meaty defense strategy

Alberto Contador is a popular man. It’s not just because no one has been able to pass him up a major European mountain pass in a Grand Tour in about five years. Apparently, his anti-doping excuses are catching on to.

Contador scored another victory this week by having his hearing with the Court of Arbitration for Sport postponed from its original dates of June 6-8 until later in the summer, a week after he may claim his fourth Tour de France victory, seventh Grand Tour title and the rare Giro d’Italia-Tour de France double.

His doping defense has been borrowed by others, including the five soccer players suspended from Mexico’s Gold Cup squad this week for testing positive for clenbuterol, the same anabolic bronchodilator that Contador came up positive for. The Mexican quintet, which include starters Guillermo Ochoa and Francisco Rodriguez, contend the same culprit is at play as with Contador: tainted meat.

The allegation does have some feasibility. While clenbuterol use if pretty effectively outlawed in Europe and the United States – the United States Anti-Doping Agency has found only one case of clenbuterol-tainted meat in over 75,000 tests conducted worldwide over the last decade – the substance is somewhat common in less-regulated markets such as Mexico. The threat is so high, apparently, that the German anti-doping agency has issued a warning against consuming Mexican meat due to a high risk of such contamination.

Doctors for the Mexican team insisted that no illegal substances were used in the training process. But the use of clenbuterol, a potent bronchodilator that makes breathing in difficult situations easier, would be a logical substance to use for players training in the high altitudes El Tri has often used to its advantage.

The suspension haven’t seemed to leave Mexico with much difficulty, as a pair of 5-0 wins against overmatched Cuba and El Salvador attest. We’ll see if the Mexican players’ defense is just the first in a long line of uses of the tainted meat defense; I can’t wait for it to become as ubiquitous as Johnnie Cochrane’s “If the glove does not fit, then you must acquit” defense of O.J. Simpson. Maybe, “If it says drugs on the sheet, blame the damn meat.”

Horton hears a new direction for NHL

Straight out of the “Can’t catch a break” file is the Boston Bruins Nathan Horton, who could be in street clothes when his team lifts a Stanley Cup later this week thanks to a severe concussion after a hellacious hit delivered by the Canucks’ Aaron Rome.

Rome is deservedly suspended for the remainder of the postseason for blindsiding the Bruins winger, who was in the midst of a breakout postseason (eight goals and nine assists in 21 games) as one of Boston’s most explosive forwards. After one of Horton’s least injury-blighted years in a while, the postseason was supposed to be the cap on an excellent season for the 26-year-old.

Instead, the image of a supine Horton unconsciously sprawled out on the ice is yet another ugly poster shot for the brutality of the NHL.

It also comes at a time of transition for the NHL in terms of discipline. Colin Campbell is gone as the disciplinary czar effective at the start of next season after a long and some would say inconsistent reign. As the consequences and severity of head injuries in the game are ever-increasing, so too finally are the penalties that replacement Brendan Shanahan will be forced to mete out when he assumes the job. (Shanahan’s role in the Rome suspension was likely only an advisory role, as NHL Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations Mike Murphy took the lead on only the fourth ever suspension and first multi-game ban in Stanley Cup Finals history.)

Whether or not hits like Rome-on-Horton signal a sea change in the NHL’s disciplinary action remains to be seen. Hopefully, something will change sooner rather than later.

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