Book Review: Damage: The Untold Story of Brain Trauma
By Chris Akers
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE for short, has become a much discussed issue in sport over the last 10 to 15 years.
From heading in football, to the weight of collisions in American football and rugby, to body checks in ice hockey, actions in the sporting field which cause the brain to rock violently within the skull are increasingly found to have negative effects. These effects can be sudden or can creep up on an athlete over a number of years.
Yet boxing is different to most sports, as while the aforementioned actions are part of the passage of play in those sports, and thus could be modified to made them safer, part of the aim of boxing are punches to the head and body. Bigger gloves can be introduced, professional boxers could be instructed to wear helmets, the duration of fights may be significantly reduced. Regardless of these measures, trauma and its lingering effects will still exist in some shape or form.
The history of CTE, or its previous labels of Punch Drunk Syndrome and Dementia Pugilistica within boxing, is the subject of Tris Dixon’s book Damage: The Untold Story of Brain Trauma.
The book starts with Dixon visiting the former world title challenger Herol Graham in a psychiatric ward of a North London hospital. Graham admits that he is in his current surroundings because of how the sport has affected him psychologically.
From there, it discusses the origins of the term punch drunk, how long the condition has been studied and examples of boxers who may have had it decades ago before the term was applied, how in medical terms CTE occurs and the factors that affect both getting it and the severity of it, and the views of doctors, trainers and boxers in regards to their views on it.
What is interesting is the number of boxers in the book who say that despite the damage that boxing caused them on a physical and mental level, if giving the chance, they would do it all over again. Indeed, there is an interesting blend of denial, frustration and stubbornness from the people that Dixon talked to for the book.
As such, at times it seems like the book conveys a feeling of inertia about how the subject of CTE and dementia has been dealt with in boxing, especially compared to the progress made in other sports around the sport.
As Dixon explains, boxing deals with tragedy in an immediate and fleeting way. Fundraising dinners for struggling ex boxers could be held, media debates are had over the safety of the sport if serious injury occurs. These things occur, before minds are drawn towards the next big fight.
Whenever scientific and technical jargon is used in any subject, there is a tendency of people to waffle and as such, a person can end up being put off by an issue. Yet Dixon does a very good job of not only making the technicalities engaging but doing so in a way which blends seemingly with the rest of the book.
One of the more fascinating sections of the book, is how the families of boxers who are severely disabled as a result of their careers, are affected by how their loved ones are in later years. Though the damage suffered by boxers is tragic, I am somewhat inured to it, due to the countless stories I’ve heard of boxers’ medical struggles once their careers are over. Yet to read how families of fighters are having to cope was arguably the most heart wrenching part of the book.
Overall, this is an excellent read. It covers the psychological and physical effects of boxing, how the sport’s structure hinders progress in helping boxers lessen their chances of having and of coping with CTE. It illustrates the emotional impact of the condition and describes how it happens biologically in ways that are easy to understand.
I’m not the fastest reader, yet it took me less than a week to read, such was my engagement with the material.
CTE is an important topic and Dixon’s contribution to it through this book is highly recommended to anyone who truly cares about the sport. Yes, some of it can be uncomfortable to read. But it’s also vital to read as well.
Damage: The Untold Story of Brain Trauma in Boxing will be published by Hamilcar Publications on May 25th.