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Globe editorial: The more we know about sports-related concussions, the less we can justify them

The story may sound familiar: Eminent medical researchers from a famous Boston university examine a bunch of football players and publish headline-grabbing papers on the dire consequences of head injuries.

A spirited debate ensues, and influential voices call for the sport to be reformed or banned.

Did we mention the year was 1906?

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That concussions are bad is very old news. What has changed in the past 110 years is the breadth of the scholarship proving it. That, and modern civil litigation.

Like many other professional sports leagues, the Canadian Football League is defending itself against a series of lawsuits brought by former players.

In defending one brought by former star Arland Bruce III, the CFL has argued – to this point successfully – that player injuries are a workplace-safety matter that should be heard by labour arbitrators.

In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will decide on whether to reconsider that question and grant Mr. Bruce leave to appeal. But even if that happens, the case will likely focus on narrow legal points, and not on the broader societal questions raised by the concussion epidemic in pro sports.

Among those issues is how far clubs should go in erring on the side of caution. Mr. Bruce argues the CFL's return-to-play protocols were inadequate, because players are rushed back onto the field.

Another involves the modern view of informed consent. Injury risk is inherent to all sport, and athletes accept that. But brain damage is very different from a bum shoulder or wonky knee.

As well, science is showing the brain to be a particularly delicate organ. A recent study at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto revealed that the brain function of even non-concussed, healthy young athletes in contact sports carries many hallmarks of concussion-related problems.

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Mr. Bruce says he didn't fully grasp these risks as a younger man. Now he has first-hand experience, and it has led him to forbid his two children from playing football. The question for society is, should it follow suit?

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