Nearly a century ago the sport of boxing was confronted by a startling scientific paper which diagnosed the first case of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a type of dementia caused by repeated injuries to the head. It was common for boxers in the twentieth century to suffer from ‘confusion, vertigo and a staggering, propulsive gait’ but it was largely shrugged off as the price of toughness. Not until the 1970s were rules introduced allowing ringside physicians to ‘throw in the towel’ and stop fights when one of the participants was absorbing too many blows to the head.
According to writer and documentary maker Hana Walker-Brown, this is just one example of sport’s long standing denial of the impact of head injuries. In April 2022 she came to Intelligence Squared to discuss her new book A Delicate Game, which investigates the reasons for sport’s troubling relationship with CTE. Walker-brown interviewed athletes including former rugby star Steve Thompson, 43, who has no memory of playing in the World Cup final in 2003, and the family of Jeff Astle, the former England football player who died at 59 from dementia caused – an inquest found – by decades of heading leather footballs. She discussed the human stories of families affected by CTE and whether sports including rugby, American football, boxing and mixed martial arts can eliminate the risks to players while maintaining the entertainment consumers want.