Brain injury in sport and its effects: Entanglements of science, law, and design

—Kathleen Bachynski, Kate Henne, Matt Ventresca—

Traumatic brain injuries and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) featured prominently in one of the three Science, Technology, and Sports sessions at 4S 2017. Recent athlete deaths – some coinciding with pledges by athletes to donate their brains for scientific study – point to embodied consequences of CTE. The issue has incited a virtually endless stream of media coverage, multi-million dollar lawsuits involving prominent sports organizations, and entrepreneurial efforts to develop innovative technologies to solve this “concussion crisis.”

Matt Ventresca explored provocative tensions within media representations of CTE, describing how media conversations often construct CTE as a matter of cause and effect; concussions cause CTE, which then causes athletes to experience severe cognitive decline or other mental health challenges. This narrative has contributed to widespread public concern about player safety in contact sports and has been drawn upon by advocates seeking to hold sports organizations accountable for the wellbeing of their athletes. However, some journalists and scientists have recently warned that this conception of causation overextends the current body of evidence related to the development of CTE. Critically minded qualitative research, as Ventresca described, can play an important role in contextualizing the emergence of CTE as a media phenomenon but also in further theorizing how medico-scientific definitions of causation and trauma are mobilized and contested across media platforms.

Moving away from popular discourse, Kate Henne considered how litigation contributes to wider narratives about head trauma, focusing on major lawsuits pertaining to professional football and hockey in North America. She looked at the logics of law in high-profile cases to see how they establish legitimate expertise and engage and scrutinize scientific knowledge. How can processes of litigation accommodate certain actors’ abilities to speak before and through the law, thus informing broader debates about brain trauma and CTE? What happens when the actions of more empowered actors – both leagues and former elite male players – influence the larger narrative about the effects of brain injury? What are the effects and consequences of law visibly responding to these elite actors, but not (yet) those who suffer brain trauma as a result of other work-related injuries, such as military service, or who endure other forms of violence, such as physical abuse?

Kathleen Bachynski took a historical look at how manufacturers of protective football equipment have shaped public understandings of youth football safety in the United States. Manufacturers have repeatedly invoked a variety of safety claims in equipment advertisements, conveying a reassuring sense of scientific design and product effectiveness through decades of ads. But when confronted with legal claims, manufacturers have instead underscored the limitations of their equipment and their ultimate lack of responsibility for injuries sustained by consumers. A range of archival sources, from equipment ads to newspaper accounts to court cases, reveals the broader historical context in which the sports industry has reinforced ideas about personal athlete or parent responsibility for youth sports injuries.

Together, the papers illuminated constitutive relationships that inform how we come to know and understand brain injury. They demonstrated how sport emerges as a contested field that crosscuts media discourse, scientific debates, legal battles and public health policy, as well as how STS frameworks can help us make sense of these articulations and their entanglements. They point to the range of discourses, actors, and representations that co-construct what we think of as the brain, or at least the injured brain: a messy, mysterious biological entity.

The panel complemented important feminist new materialist analyses on neuroscience, some of which were featured at the meeting. Their connections point to the many ways the brain, as Victoria Pitts-Taylor (2017, 1-2) reminds us, emerges as a social problem not only in the sense that it “is conceived as the biological ground for the self and social life,” but “is also understood as itself a product of sociality, built through experience and open to transformation.”