The Tau of Football

None of my boys showed any real interest in football until Oliver. Oliver loves football. Oliver contemplates the game in a very cerebral way. He has checked out almost every book at the library on the topic of football. I remember one evening Oliver explaining to me that he wanted to learn the “strategy” of the game. He was looking for more comprehensive literature, something that went beyond the facts and figures. He was only five or six years old. Oliver is a die hard Notre Dame fan. I sometimes think that he and Knute Rockne are on a first name basis. Right now, sitting on Oliver’s bedroom dresser, is a gold helmet and a copy of the book, Unbeatable: Notre Dame’s 1988 Championship and the Last Great College Football Season.

If you saw Oliver walking down the street today the first thing you might notice is his vintage style Notre Dame letter jacket. But the second thing would likely be his bright orange cochlear implants. These miraculous devices have changed our lives, opening a world of language and sound that he would have otherwise not encountered. But these devices present an obstacle to playing football. Like a fine dining table with wood inlays, Oliver’s skull was routed on both sides just behind his ears. This allows the ceramic encased electronics of his implants to sit nearly flush with the outer surface of his cranium just under his skin. Protruding from each of these modules is a fine wire containing an array of 12 electrode pairs. This thin array is precisely placed within Oliver’s cochlea such that each pair of electrodes is in the correct position to stimulate the auditory nerve in a very specific location. A location that corresponds to a specific frequency of sound.

If you are astute you may be wondering how just twelve different frequencies could allow for usable hearing when a normally hearing person can detect sounds from as low as 20 Hz to as high as 20,000 Hz. There are two factors at play here. First the 12 electrode pairs are situated to focus on the narrower range of human speech which brings up the low end to 150 Hz and drops the high end to around 4,000 Hz. But this is still a very wide range for just 12 electrode pairs to discriminate the nuances of speech. This is where the second and more important factor comes in. Oliver’s brain is able to fill in the missing information. But for Oliver, with or without a helmet, a single blow to the head could lead to a sudden loss of hearing. A loss that may not be able to be restored.

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about the philosophy of mind and consciousness. What makes us who we are? How is it that we are self aware? How do we perceive the world around us? We know from Einstein’s relativity theory that space and time are completely relative to the observer. That means that space and time literally change in size and rate from one observer to another. There is a growing body of experimental data that proves space and time are not real at all, just illusionary constructs of our brain so that we can “understand” this universe in which we live. This isn’t to say that the material world isn’t real, far from it. It’s just not what we perceive it to be.

Consider the idea of separability. We generally think of things as being individual and separate from other things. The word “atom” literally means “basic unit”. We think of ourselves and everything around us as being made of of a vast collection of individual atoms. But there are conditions under which we have observed two separate particles being sent miles from each other and if we change something about one of them the other instantaneously changes too. No delay for the required information exchange at the speed of light. Right. now. So we can say that these two particles are in fact not separated at all. That for them, space has no meaning whatsoever. We refer to this phenomenon as “entanglement”. As our technology gets better we are able to test for this entanglement with ever larger objects and they all show this same phenomenon. If we believe the math, it tells us that all matter since its origination in the Big Bang is entangled with all other matter. That the whole material world is entirely connected and one.

If all of this wasn’t strange enough, quantum mechanics seems to be pointing us to the reality that it is our consciousness that literally creates the material world around us and that without conscious life, there is only potential for things to exist. In Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness, authors Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner say,

“Consciousness and the quantum enigma are not just two mysteries; they are the two mysteries: The first, the experimental demonstration of the quantum enigma [that reality is created by the observer], presents us with the mystery of the objective, physical world “out there,” and the second, conscious awareness, presents us with the mystery of the subjective, mental world “in here.” Quantum mechanics appears to connect the two.”

Our consciousness somehow resides in or is enabled by our brain. A mass of flesh containing 100 billion neurons. Research is showing us that these neurons aren’t just behaving like simple transistors being either off or on as they process information.  Instead they are utilizing their entangled quantum states allowing millions of times more processing power. The brain is a marvelous mystery. Robert Lanza in his book Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe says of the black box that is our brain,

“Of course, when a chunk of the body has vanished, as some unfortunate double amputees have experienced, one still feels oneself to be just as “present” and “here” as before, and not subjectively diminished in the least. This logic could be carried forth easily enough until one arrives at solely the brain itself perceiving itself as “me”—because if a human head could be maintained with an artificial heart and the rest, it too would reply “Here!” if its name were shouted at roll call.”

I say all of this to make the point that the world, but more specifically, our brain, is absolutely amazing and seems to be the seat of where we become who we are. Dare I say, the interface that brings our body and soul into union. In his essay The Poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes the poet Edmund Spenser,

“So every spirit, as it is most pure,
And hath in it the more of heavenly light,
So it the fairer body doth procure
To habit in, and it more fairly dight,
With cheerful grace and amiable sight.
For, of the soul, the body form doth take,
For soul is form, and doth the body make.”

Emerson goes on, “Here we find ourselves suddenly not in a critical speculation but in a holy place, and should go very warily and reverently. We stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance and Unity into Variety.”

And now I will go into a holy place. And I will go warily and reverently. Vince Lombardi said, “Football is a great deal like life in that it teaches that work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness and respect for authority is the price that each and every one of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.” This aspect of football is everything that I want my son Oliver to experience. The goods of football are real and worth preserving. But football in its current form has a problem. Football in its current form is a game that I would not allow my son to play at higher levels of the game. Although most people don’t have the significant risk of a single hit in football like Oliver, there is a hidden danger lurking.

In the PBS Frontline documentary, A League of Denial, Robert Stern a neuropsychologist at Boston University described it this way, “In football, one has to expect that almost every play of every game and every practice, they’re going to be hitting their heads against each other. That’s the nature of the game. Those things seem to happen around 1,000 to 1,500 times a year.” He continues, “Each time that happens, it’s around 20G or more. That’s the equivalent of driving a car at 35 miles per hour into a brick wall 1,000 to 1,500 times per year.” Obviously the bigger the players and the more serious the play, the more likely these statistics are to be true. But the problem is that even lower levels of frequency and intensity are dangerous for the brain.  Each time that the brain is pushed against the inside of the cranium a small change takes place in the brain with a substance called tau. (Those with good functioning brains may have been bothered from the beginning of my writing that I had misspelled “Tao” in the title. You know who you are, shame on you for doubting me.) The tau of football is not a philosophy, it is a protein.

Remember those 100 billion neurons?  Tau is the glue that helps hold them together. Each time that the brain is jarred, this tau is broken loose from the neurons and becomes free floating. And instead of repairing itself by putting these tau proteins back in place or eliminating them, our bodies allow this free floating tau to build up and clump together. Over many years, a brain exposed to thousands of jarring impacts, ends up with clumps of tau spread throughout the brain and disrupting normal brain function. This disease progresses like exposure to heavy metal. If you eat tainted fish a little bit of mercury builds up in your system over time. It never leaves. Eventually you will end up with mercury poisoning and die. This build up of clumps of tau, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), is very similar. Get enough of it and you will end up dead. But in between just a little and death is a whole range of cognitive dysfunction presenting itself in a wide range of problems.   These problems can range from an inability to concentrate, to extreme anger, to strong suicidal desire. It isn’t just concussions that cause displaced tau. A concussion is just a way to describe a more massive event. Kind of like eating 100 pounds of mercury tainted tuna in one sitting.

I could go on and on about the proof for CTE being caused by football but I will leave it to you to do your own research. It is very easy to find online. I want to discuss the implications. If Oliver didn’t have cochlear implants, I would be looking at a very difficult decision. Would I let Oliver play football?  Perhaps I would with the assumption that he wouldn’t be very good.  I would count on him having  a very short career playing with small people.  In this scenario any risk to Oliver would be greatly diminished.  Based on the athletic ability of his father, this would be a reasonable position for me to take.

But I can’t help thinking that this would be a selfish position. Because I know that among all those children would be a few “lucky” ones who would end up on the high school varsity starting line. Some of these would go on to play college football. And a few would win the “lottery” and someday play in the NFL.  What is my obligation as a parent, not just to my own child, but to this entangled mass of humanity that we call society?  And what about a simpler, seemingly less important question of whether or not I will watch the Super Bowl  tonight and celebrate this national event that pulls together so many in our nation in a common bond?  Can I in good conscience, support a game that I know is hurting people and families?  But wait you might say, these are adults, they are free to make their own decisions. True enough. But what if you are a boy growing up in poverty and your talent is being big and strong? What if football is your one chance to pull yourself out of your economic condition?

My hope is that enough people will begin to think differently about this fatal problem with my favorite game. We need to move beyond denial to forcing more research on how we can use technology and rules reform to greatly reduce the risks. How to save the game will be in my thoughts as Oliver and I watch the big game tonight. I encourage all of you with sound mind, in your cognitive dissonance, to root for the Eagles.