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Game Over:
Brain Injury and Sports

Once part of every athlete’s life,

brain injury is now changing

the rules of the game


By Marc Lallanilla


January 2011 Mike Borich was a handsome and talented young athlete with a promising career ahead of him. A wide receiver at Western Illinois University known for his spectacular catches, Borich never played football professionally. Instead, he went on to an award-winning coaching career with the Chicago Bears, Brigham Young University and other Division 1 college teams.


But by 2003, Borich’s career seemed to be slowing down. He resigned from a coaching position at University of Arizona after just three months, citing personal reasons. The married father of three children, Borich’s life was becoming a swirl of alcohol and drug abuse. Violent mood swings and aggressive behavior were complicated by bouts of disorientation, depression, and forgetfulness—he sometimes missed team buses, or checked into the wrong hotel. In 2009, at the age of 42, Borich was dead of an overdose of alcohol, cocaine and OxyContin.


While Borich’s friends and relatives remembered a dedicated coach and family man, his father Joe also remembered the concussions his son had suffered—nine or 10, though nobody really counted at the time, because concussions were just considered part of the game. After his son’s death, Joe Borich donated his son’s brain to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University. Researchers there found that the brain showed an advanced case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.


Once known as dementia pugilistica for the many boxers who were “punch drunk,” CTE has received greater attention recently as more and more athletes—professional jocks as well as recreational players and weekend warriors—have been found to have the disorder. In addition to boxers and football players, it’s been discovered in other people who suffer repeated head trauma: hockey, soccer, and rugby players, wrestlers, equestrian athletes, domestic abuse victims—even a circus clown who was subject to repeated “dwarf-tossing” contests.

Building a Better Jock

Can Science Create a Stronger, Faster Olympian?
Some Say Yes; Others Disagree

By MARC LALLANILLA                        

Aug. 13, 2004 — In the Mexico City Olympics of 1968, Bob Beamon stunned the athletic world when he shattered the record for the men's long jump. Leaping over 29 feet, he beat the former record by almost 2 feet — so far that the officials' measuring rail didn't even extend that distance.

What unlocks these record-setting performances? For many coaches and athletes, the answer seems to be science, in the form of nutrition, physiology and materials technology.

But is the reliance on new scientific innovations stealing the soul of athletic competition?

Bob Beamon lept into the record books with his 1968 Olympic long jump. (AP Photo)

What athletes eat and drink — the super-foods precisely engineered to address their nutrient needs — is one of the ways that science lends a helping hand.

"We have foods now that are specifically designed for athletes," says Ron Pfeiffer, professor of kinesiology at Boise State University in Idaho and co-director of its Center for Orthopedic and Biomechanics Research.

"Elite athletes aren't the kinds of people you'll see walking down the street next to you," Pfeiffer adds. "They have different nutritional needs. Their diets are carefully monitored for things like muscle glycogen and liver glycogen levels."

Some companies have excelled at devising sports drinks and other products that address athletes' fluid-replacement and carbohydrate needs. But are these super-foods creating super-athletes?

Pfeiffer, like most others in sports science, doesn't think so. "There's no real magic to it," he says, though he doesn't think anyone is likely to return to the diets of a generation ago.

"I didn't know a protein from a hockey puck when I went to the Olympic trials for speed skating in 1968 and 1972," Pfeiffer says.

For the full story, go to ABC News

What's the Buzz on Energy Drinks for Kids?
Some Critics Call Caffeine Drinks for Children Risky

By MARC LALLANILLA                        

Sept. 26, 2005 There's nothing new in marketing products to children, even products intended for adults. But doctors are concerned that a new sports drink containing caffeine and other substances, marketed to children as young as 4 years old, may have gone too far.

Spark, a product aimed at adults and teens manufactured by Advocare of Carrollton, Texas, contains 120 milligrams of caffeine — roughly the same amount as a cup of coffee — as well as 200 mg of taurine and 50 mg of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a compound with stimulant properties.

These ingredients are usually found in energy drinks and sports beverages intended for elite athletes.


KickStart Spark, a related product specifically marketed for children 4 years and older, contains even more gamma-aminobutyric acid (100 mg), 200 mg of taurine and 60 mg of caffeine.

"This is shameful marketing," said Madelyn H. Fernstrom, associate professor and director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Weight Management Center. "Under the guise of 'good health,' this is a promotion of caffeine consumption, which will likely have a biological effect on most children who consume it, since their intake is low."

For the full story, go to ABC News

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Team Psychology Can Contribute to Assaults

'Groupthink' Often Overrides Individual Morals

By MARC LALLANILLA                        

April 20, 2006 Athletes and officials at Duke University who find themselves embroiled in that lacrosse team's sexual assault scandal have plenty of company.

In recent years, colleges across the country have found themselves caught in several high profile cases of alleged rape or sexual assault by one or more members of a sports team.

To be sure, the vast majority of college athletes are never accused of any wrongdoing, and many observers describe sports as a potent character-building experience. But critics claim there are too many reports of serious misconduct by student athletes.

Details vary from one situation to the next, but many critics see the powerful influence that a team has over individual morals as a common theme running through each case. Many of these episodes of sexual assault don't involve individual aggressors, but small bands of athletes acting as a group.

Mitch Abrams, a sports psychologist and consultant, argued that groups like college-level sports teams often have their own identities, beliefs and codes. This leads to what he called "groupthink," where individual initiative is quashed by the collective values of the group.

"There's a group dynamic that suppresses the individual point-of-view," Abrams said. "There has to be increased team identity." But left unchecked, he said, these group values can easily override a young person's sense of right and wrong.

"You might have a bunch of guys who have a great [individual] moral code," Abrams said. "But inside a culture where there's groupthink that supports exploitation of women, mass consumption of alcohol that will impair judgment, and a feeling that they're above the law — there will be members who engage in bad behavior."

For the full story, go to ABC News

Sports Drinks: Who Needs Them?
Doctors Question Added Calories and Sugar Most Consumers Don't Need

(AP Graphics)

By MARC LALLANILLA                       

April 19, 2005 Most supermarkets and convenience stores are well stocked with neon-colored sports drinks and vitamin-fortified "designer water."

These bottled drinks promise to give the drinker energy and vitality — some even advertise vague rewards like "balance," "focus" and stress relief.

But does the average consumer derive any real benefit from the sports drinks that Americans spent over $5.4 billion on last year?

Water, Water Everywhere

"It's a marketing gimmick, pure and simple," said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, nutritionist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Most health experts agree that sports drinks have electrolytes and sodium that are beneficial to professional athletes and marathoners, but have little value to the average user.

"There's a certain appeal in drinking what Olympic athletes drink," Ayoob said, "but it should be just water if you're doing 10 minutes on a treadmill."

And because many enhanced waters contain only small amounts of essential nutrients, Ayoob advises consumers to look elsewhere for nutrition.

"That's what we have food for," said Ayoob.

For the full story, go to ABC News

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