Barry McNamara  |   Published October 25, 2015

Traumatic brain injuries

Winslade ’63 tells Monmouth psychology students the dangers of contact sports
  • Winslade ’63 tells Monmouth psychology students the dangers of contact sports
Monmouth College alumnus William Winslade was ahead of his time in 1998, when his ground-breaking book “Confronting Traumatic Brain Injury: Devastation, Hope and Healing,” was published by Yale University Press.
  Today, the issues raised by Winslade nearly two decades ago are getting front-page treatment, and not just the front page of the sports section. During a recent visit to his alma mater through its Alumni Distinguished Visitor program, he shared some of his thoughts on traumatic brain injury (TBI).   Speaking to a psychology class, Winslade cited stories of several athletes – particularly football players and boxers – who saw their lives tragically altered and, in some cases, ended, by TBI.   “We’re in a new era of traumatic brain injury,” he told the class. “It’s no longer a silent epidemic.”   Going back more than a century, the issue of athletic injuries wasn’t completely silent, he admitted, telling the class about President Theodore Roosevelt’s threat to institute a federal law banning football after 16 players died in 1902. About a quarter-century later, a doctor “autopsied 300 people, and 28 were boxers,” reported Winslade. “The brains of the boxers looked really weird. There were protein build-ups that looked like tangled spaghetti. … Back then, the phrases used to describe boxers were ‘punch drunk’ and ‘slug nutty.’”   Winslade, a 1963 Monmouth graduate who went on receive three doctoral degrees in philosophy, psychoanalysis and law, then made a very simple point: “Boxing is the deliberate delivery of traumatic brain injury. The knockout is the goal.”   His impression of football is not much more optimistic, as he said helmets are great for “protecting the face, but not the brain.”   “Players might not get a concussion, but they will get repeated blows to the head. That destroys large sections of the cerebral cortex. That’s the part of the brain you need to pass your exams,” he told the students.   A former trustee of the college and a recipient of an honorary doctorate, Winslade, who holds a named professorship at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, as well as academic appointments at the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Austin, was inducted into Monmouth’s Hall of Achievement in 1997. That was not the prognosis for him at the age of 18 months, when he fell off a second-story porch, landing on his head. He spent five weeks in a hospital, where bone fragments were removed and stints were used to drain fluid to reduce swelling that could cut off the supply of blood to his brain.   He made it through that ordeal without any “residual effects that I know of,” and developed into a strong athlete in Carlinville, Ill. Despite his abilities, he opted out of high school football.   “I was right not to play,” he said. “It’s a fascinating sport, but it’s extremely dangerous.”   Winslade said that shortly after his book was released, the National Football League was challenged to make changes to its policies related to concussions.   “They said that concussions were just ‘mild.’ They get better. Concussions are just a bruise on your brain, and bruises heal.”   He asked the class, “Is that true? Was their committee really on the right track?,” then introduced them to another element of TBI – secondary impact syndrome. He told of a track athlete he knew who also participated in Gold Gloves boxing as a way to stay in shape. Two days after getting beaten up in the ring, he fought again, and the first blow he received killed him, with secondary impact syndrome being the diagnosis.   In a recent op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle, Winslade and his co-author attempted to answer the question of what to do with the flood of new TBI information:   “What level of risk is tolerable?” they asked. “Parents must answer this question for any minor child who plays football. Adults who play football must answer this question for themselves. But we must realize that the risks of concussions and the magnitude of the harms they cause may be significantly larger than we previously believed. Further, we must move past the idea that helmet technology or concussion-management protocols can cure all of the problems. The only thing we can say with certainty is that there will be no easy solutions.”   Another article, published by grantland.com just two weeks after Winslade’s visit to campus, spoke to the severity of the issue, as well as the level of denial by the NFL and other organizations that Winslade cited to the class:   “According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, which is housed at the University of North Carolina, 13 high school American football players died from injuries between 2012 and 2014. This is a plain and simple statistic. Alone among our sports spectacles, American football kills our children. … This is something that should give anyone pause but is not likely to do so. Not now. Not in the American fall, when American football is played, and when the cheers echo from sea to shining sea.”
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