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Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Sports are in our genes, but what is in our heads?

Published: Tuesday, May 22 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

San Diego Chargers former player Junior Seau during his induction into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame in a ceremony held at half time of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011 in San Diego. (Denis Poroy, AP Photo) San Diego Chargers former player Junior Seau during his induction into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame in a ceremony held at half time of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011 in San Diego. (Denis Poroy, AP Photo)

Sports are in our genes.

They have been embedded in us as long as men and women have chased each other.

The term "human race" speaks to this competitive DNA. Charles Darwin famously said survival is to the fittest, and what better way to prove our manliness than by watching NASCAR or picking the brackets for NCAA basketball?

Early contests were games of mass armies and great slaughter. It was the Greeks who brought civility into such messy habits by inventing the Olympics. This quadrennial symbolic olive branch prompted the various warring city-states to put down their swords and to fight it out in the arena of sports.

That is why there are so many athletic events today that imitate battle. Javelin throw, fencing and shooting are the closest to their original intent to kill somebody. In fact the ancient pentathlon was created to imitate the skills of a military courier. The contestant had to race a horse jumping to safety, shoot his way out of trouble, take on a villainous enemy with the sword, swim a moat and run to his destination as if a secret missive were at risk.

Today, it is the actual combative sports that are troublesome. It is OK to pretend to stab someone with a foil if the opponent is wearing pads and a mask. It is another thing to put two men in a ring with the express purpose of trying smash the living daylights out of each other.

Pugilism, better known as boxing, pretends to be refined and even emote a touch of culture because the referee wears a bow tie; it is anything but. We delude ourselves with ringside doctors, mouth guards and male protection. The brain is still the target of pummeling.

Professional football is about a half step behind. The illusion of protection with big shoulder pads and a glistening helmet only obscures the damage being done to the neural circuits.

The recent suicide of former NFL linebacker Junior Seau has raised even more speculation about brain trauma. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is thought to be the cause of early dementia, including memory loss and also mood changes of depression and increased risk of suicide.

So here is a growing conflict. Should we ethically support with our season tickets, jerseys purchases and beer ads a sport that — if executed to the fullest — potentially wipes out the wits of its players?

I admit I enjoy Peyton Manning commercials and college football, especially when my alma mater wins. Nevertheless, I don’t want to be a spectating accomplice to future self-inflicted deaths.

With this heresy, those with homozygous sports genes will protest. They may view aggressive athletics as American as going to battle. Don’t we call war a Super Bowl? Without violent sports how will our nation of the future hone its warrior skills of competition and survival amidst viciousness?

Sadly, our society will not halt deadly sports. There is too much vicarious thrill in watching cage fighting, kickboxing or some other combat to the death. The only vote we have is to not watch and be grateful if our grandchildren are not in training for professional or amateur head-butting.

But it is American football that is the toughest to come up with some reasonable solutions. How do we protect the players while allowing them to be modern gladiators? Technology is not the answer. Should there be lifetime bans for those who had their bells rung? What should we do with our culture of violence and bounties when taking out an opponent is not only cheered but also rewarded financially? Should we arrest players and coaches for assault and fans as accomplices?

Sports are inherently part of us. They characterize a nation and shape our culture. Sports should be fun not fatal.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at jgcramermd@yahoo.com.

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