Posted by: mdegeorge | June 20, 2011

Weekly Diagnosis: June 20

It’s been a week of champions and embarrassing also-rans (that’s you LeBron and every Vancouver Canuck fan). As the summer sports lull kicks off, we’ve had plenty to ponder here at the Diagnosis, from a story of heroism to fun camp activities to some well-deserved Stanley Cup celebrations.

Leonard Pope. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Cutting down lax screening in court

The sports legal world, those select few that aren’t tuned into the latest developments of the NFL labor saga, had its eyes focused this week on an Orlando courtroom for the start of a civil suit by the family of deceased University of Central Florida football player Ereck Plancher against the school (court documents here).

The 19-year-old died during an offseason workout March 18, 2008, a death the family maintains could have been prevented had the university done its due diligence in detecting that Plancher suffered from sickle cell trait. What Plancher suffered from is fairly common and far less serious than sickle cell disease, a more serious degree of abnormality.

Plancher and other sickle cell trait sufferers have one copy a gene coding for functional hemoglobin A and one copy of the aberrant hemoglobin S, which leads to misshapen and non-functional red blood cells. People with normal red blood cells are homozygous – i.e. have two alleles – of the hemoglobin A gene. Sickle cell disease sufferers are homozygous for the disease-causing hemoglobin S gene. As the hemoglobin S gene is recessive, the presence of only one hemoglobin A is sufficient in most to avoid serious symptoms and live a normal life. Sickle cell trait can however produce a degree of deformity in the normal biconcave round shape of red blood cells, exacerbating existing conditions such as diabetes, poor kidney function, pulmonary problems or lead to severe and life-threatening difficulties in extreme conditions such as heavy exercise or high altitudes. It’s worth mentioning that Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Ryan Clark has carved out an almost decade-long career in the NFL despite suffering the condition.

The main aim of the lawsuit appears to be increasing awareness for the condition by schools everywhere. Whether or not UCF is at fault, it already appears as though the NCAA sees the Planchers’ point. Last year, Division I passed a measure mandating screening for the condition. Just this week – in what can’t be a coincidence – Divisions II and III put forth a similar recommendation that will be up for approval in 2012.

The Planchers’ suit looks like a rarity in that monetary gain isn’t the main objective – damages sought are in excess of $15,000 without a dollar total specified. But the fact that they’re after growing awareness for a condition that took their son makes it a much nobler cause.

Poking, prodding and other neurological summer fun

Western Pennsylvania, fueled by the success of the Pittsburgh Penguins, has become a growing hotbed of hockey passion. So it’s no surprise that the Pens summer camps are a hot ticket. After all, a chance to play with NHLers, meet the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury and receive instruction from some of the game’s best coaches is pretty enticing to aspiring young hockey players.

The hook for this summer’s slate of camps, however, is every young kids camp dream: free baseline concussion testing. And this testing isn’t just a throw-in listed in the amenities section like a boxed lunch or commemorative t-shirt. The testing is so prominent in the camp plans as to warrant mention in the headline and first three paragraphs of the four-paragraph release.

It might as well say, “Bring your kid for concussion testing and then maybe to play a little hockey if we have time.”

It’s not that baseline testing isn’t an important weapon in the head injury prevention arsenal. What the Pens are doing is an extremely admirable effort to collect as much information as possible on potential hockey players at as young an age as possible to more completely and accurately assess the risks they face later in their careers and lives. It’s especially poignant that it’s the Pens, a team among the loudest in the chorus professing defense of players against big hits and at the crossroads with its own superstar, is among the leader in providing such services for young players.

But from a marketing standpoint, maybe the hard sell on a doctor’s visit at the rink isn’t the best way to get kids interested in hockey.

A concussed Cup celebration

The Penguins aren’t the only team deeply impacted by head injuries in the NHL. The team that just lifted the Stanley Cup, the Boston Bruins, has also had the direction of its team – and almost its title quest – seriously altered by head injuries.

The most obvious is Nathan Horton, who was on the receiving end of a devastating hit in Game 3 by Vancouver’s Aaron Rome. The subtraction of one of the team’s breakout power forwards in this postseason was turned into a positive by a hungry and pissed off Boston team. Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas credited the Rome hit as the momentum-turner in the series, prompting the Bruins to win four of the next five games, including three blowouts in Beantown and a decisive Game 7 to seal a long-awaited Cup.

While Horton was in street clothes, he still had a role in the Game 7 win. Apparently the winger, who rather surprisingly made the trip to British Columbia with the team, brought with him a water bottle full of melted ice from the TD Banknorth Garden rink that he poured onto the ice surface at Rogers Arena to make the B’s feel a little more at home. Whether or not that’s an indication as to how far his cognitive functions have come since the hit, I’m not sure, but he seemed fine lifting the Cup on ice in full uniform with his teammates after the game. (It bears mentioning that the Game 7 hero, Patrice Bergeron, is also a veteran of the neurological rehab unit, having suffered a severe concussion and facial fractures after a hit by then-Philadelphia defenseman Randy Jones that limited him to only 10 games in the 2007-08 season.)

The more forgotten part of the equation, however, is Marc Savard. The oft-injured centerman has been one of the game’s best playmakers over the last five or so seasons, recording point totals of 98, 97 and 88 since the lockout. Savard’s prolonged absence is a significant contributor to the occasional inconsistency (or at times last season, downright impotency) of the Bruins’ offense.

But the last two seasons have been blighted by injuries, limiting him to 66 total games. His 2009-10 season was infamously cut short by a savage hit by Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke, and though he returned briefly for the ill-fated Eastern Conference Finals series against Philadelphia, it was clear he wasn’t the same. Those cobwebs were still with him as he missed the first two months of the 2010-11 season and played in 25 games until a hit by former teammate and current Colorado Avalanche Matt Hunwick gave him his second major concussion in under a year.

The post-concussion symptoms were so severe as to prevent him from even flying to Vancouver to watch the games. But the center was on hand during the celebration of the title Saturday in Boston. Savard admitted, “it’s been tough” but also expressed his joy at his teammates being able to capture a title even in his absence.

It’s certainly too early for right-minded (read: not Vegas odds-makers) to speculate who the favorites are next season. But a Bruins team that could return most of the pieces it had in that dominant Game 7, plus Horton and Savard, both with clean bills of health, would be a tantalizing pick for a repeat.

Only the Pope saves more than … Pope

There have been plenty of NFL players making news all the wrong ways in recent weeks. Most of them are Kenny Britt.

But one player can count a genuine act of heroism that was far more than giving money or signing a football.

That player is Kansas City Chiefs and former University of Georgia tight end Leonard Pope, who last weekend saved a six-year-old from drowning.

Bryson Moore was at a cousin’s birthday party in Americus, Georgia when he went into a pool and quite literally found himself in too deep. Neither Bryson’s mother, Anne, or the “10 or 12” partygoers around the pool could swim (uh, then why have a pool?), leading a frantic Anne to call out for help. Pope answered that call, jumping into the pool fully clothed, keys and cellphone still in his pockets, to drag the child to safety.

Pope, who has children of his own aged nine and two, is known in the area for his philanthropic efforts for kids, including “Leonard Pope’s Kids Day” in conjunction with his Creating Hope and Making Progress (CHAMP) foundation. Pope’s efforts bring to mind those of former Chiefs running back Joe Delaney, a promising young player who died in Monroe, Louisiana in 1983 trying to save three children swimming in a local pond. (One of those children survived, though Delaney and two others perished; a stirring account of the event was written in 2002 by Mark Kram Jr. that earned inclusion in that year’s Best American Sports Writing.)

Pope obviously should be lauded for his heroic deed. But the unsung heroes in this saga are the bickering owners and players of the NFL. Without their help, Pope likely would have been preparing for or attending some type of team workout or function as per the non-locked out schedule. For the Moores’ sake though, Pope was in the right place at the right moment.

Barber trimming out an obvious drawback

The Tiki Barber comeback saga that I think we all hoped would just fade off into the lockout ether resurfaced this week with the former New York Giants running back’s appearance on HBO in which he revealed he was suffering from depression since his retirement from the game.

Barber admitted that he needs the game of professional football more than the game needs him at this juncture. The profile paints a desperate picture of a desolate man looking for an anchor now gone in his life. Combined with the failure of his marriage, his rather public disgrace for cheating on his pregnant (now ex-) wife with an NBC intern 13 years his junior and his dismissal from his job as a commentator on NBC’s Football Night in America and contributor on the Today Show, Barber told HBO he needs “to prove to my myself that I can be successful at something.”

Numerous studies have been done investigating the post-playing career mental status of former athletes, and a direct correlation has been found time and again between increased prevalence of depression after the cessation of athlete’s careers. Such a drop in self-esteem and happiness can be self-perpetuating, as a retired athlete can have that imbalance affect relationship with others, including family and spouses, which only worsens the sting of no longer suiting up.

But another large contributing factor that Barber seems to be missing is that these symptoms are exacerbated by the presence of persistent physical injuries, especially to the head. These take many shapes and forms that don’t always resort in the severity of such devastating mood disorders felt by players like former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson or the fatalism and neurological degeneration seen by the likes of suicidal Dave Duerson. Sometimes, it’s as simple as chronic pain that remains as a solitary and unglamorous reminder once the past glory has faded.

The last point seems to be what Barber, as far as he has shared, is missing. If after ten years in the league Barber was able to walk away – quite literally – with his body intact, he should regard himself as extremely fortunate. Returning to the playing field could be a painfully ironic paradox: To mollify his mental troubles, Barber may have to put his body at risk yet again, which further down the road could again endanger his mental condition.

Barber is caught between a rock – or rather, carrying the rock — and a hard place in this decision. Perhaps the best thing for him would be to find something less punishing, such as a rejuvenated television career, to fill the void left by his retirement from the gridiron. Whatever he chooses, let’s hope it’s the least brutal option, for body and mind.

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