Bloodsport

Contra Bill Simmons, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest article isn’t 2009’s best piece of sports journalism. In fact, it’s not even the best article about football-related concussions. For that, you’ll have to go to GQ’s “Game Brain,” an absolutely frightening look at the long-term consequences of on-field collisions.

I’ve always enjoyed football, but I never really considered the physical repercussions of repeated head collisions. The visceral, bone-crunching stuff you see on TV – the big hits, the punishing sacks – immediately bring to mind broken legs and dislocated shoulders, and sure enough, the NFL has its fair share of both. But concussions don’t really get talked about. Unless, of course, it’s in the context of a star player getting concussed and walking back on the field two weeks later, no questions asked. This is almost universally lauded in glowing terms like “playing hurt” or “being a warrior” or “fighting through the pain.”

It turns out, however, that concussions are just as bad – if not worse – as broken bones. Here’s GQ on the heartbreaking post-football career of Mike Webster:

Nine-time Pro Bowler. Hall of Famer. “Iron Mike,” legendary Steelers center for fifteen seasons. His life after football had been mysterious and tragic, and on the news they were going on and on about it. What had happened to him? How does a guy go from four Super Bowl rings to…pissing in his own oven and squirting Super Glue on his rotting teeth? Mike Webster bought himself a Taser gun, used that on himself to treat his back pain, would zap himself into unconsciousness just to get some sleep. Mike Webster lost all his money, or maybe gave it away. He forgot. A lot of lawsuits. Mike Webster forgot how to eat, too. Soon Mike Webster was homeless, living in a truck, one of its windows replaced with a garbage bag and tape.

Mike Webster, dead at fifty. The hall-of-fame centerpiece of perhaps the most storied football dynasty of all time, driven insane by undiagnosed brain injuries. Needless to say, this sort of thing doesn’t get heavy rotation on the league’s back-slapping highlight reels. But not only has the impact of sustained head injuries failed to penetrate the public conscious, the type of plays that lead to concussions are positively celebrated by the media and fans. How many times have you heard a commentator praise “hard-nosed, old-fashioned football?” Or a “hard-hitting, blue collar game plan?” These cliches appear more frequently than any combination of “grizzled,” “gunslinger” and “Brett Favre,” which says something important about the level of tacit acceptance for incredibly violent on-field collisions. Last year’s Steelers-Ravens playoff clash, for example, featured an orgy of commentary praising both teams for their physical style of play. The injury time-outs, the big hits – these were taken as validation of a certain approach to football, not warning signs about the players’ physical well-being.

It’s particularly dispiriting because as former players, many sports commentators know what goes on in locker rooms across the country. Here’s an astonishing admission from Merril Hoge, an ESPN analyst and former Steelers running back:

“I got a concussion in Kansas City, then another one six weeks later when we played in Chicago . . . I read to my 3-year-old daughter – her books were about all I could read. I had to learn all over again.

“When I started working at ESPN, I would stay up all night practicing my lines. But when I’d do the shows, I couldn’t follow the conversation. Thank the Lord most of my shows we taped.”

Hoge always comes off as a genial guy on camera. But lurking underneath that calm, studio-friendly exterior is a former player who was hit so hard so frequently he literally had to learn how to read again. That’s absolutely shocking.

Having read the GQ article in full (I encourage you to do the same), here are three inescapable conclusions:

  1. Head injuries are a real (and under-reported) problem at all levels of football.
  2. With the speed and force of the modern game, there really is no practical solution to players’ vulnerability to head injuries.
  3. As an institution, the NFL is completely unwilling to even acknowledge the problem, much less do something to address player concussions.

Which, from a fan’s perspective, raises more than a few difficult questions. I watched and enjoyed the Jets-Dolphins game last night. But I admit to wincing a bit more than usual each time the players collided. It’s hard not to wonder which hard-hitting defensive back, offensive lineman, or tight end will become the next Mike Webster a few decades down the road. It’s also hard not to wonder how many potentially fatal head injuries are being brushed aside or otherwise overlooked by team medical staffs in the course of a tight game.

If players were aware of the dangers associated with head injuries, I might be less concerned. They are, after all, star athletes, paid millions of dollars annually to run into each other at great risk. But the NFL’s “see no evil” mentality also pervades all levels of football. Concussions simply aren’t understood as potentially life-threatening injuries, which is why coaching staffs in high school, college and the NFL simply ignore them.

Boycotting the NFL probably isn’t in the cards, but we can stop glorifying hard-hitting collisions as some sort of iconic symbol of all that is good and right about American football. This season, I’d prefer to see less injury time-outs, less stretcher-bearers and less self-congratulatory references to a “hard-hitting, physical style of play.” Instead, it would be nice if ESPN and the rest of the football-industrial complex showed some awareness of the severity of players’ head injuries.

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34 thoughts on “Bloodsport

  1. They are, after all, star athletes, paid millions of dollars annually to run into each other at great risk.

    Geez, Will, you’re smarter than that. Some of them are stars. The vast majority of the players most at risk, the linemen, are not. The minimum salary in the NFL is $285K. That’s not bad, but I wouldn’t risk brain damage for it.

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  2. There was the 60 Minutes report last Sunday (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/10/09/60minutes/main5371686.shtml).

    The NFL acting like a tobacco company on this is really shameful.

    I’d add that the fifth estate – on the public broadcaster here in Canada – dealt with this with respect to the untimely death of several former CFL players almost a year ago (http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/2008-2009/head_games/cflreport.html).

    So, this story really isn’t news.

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  3. Way back in ’62, as a soon-to-be sophomore in high school I collapsed from heat exhaustion during two-a-day’s football practice in August. They threw me in the hospital for a couple of days and following that I wasn’t allowed to play that year. Turned out I never played high school football whereas my little brother played all four years and ended up with four or five concussions.
    While I had two daughters, he had a son who was encouraged to play and my nephew was good enough to get a college scholarship. He had his knee replacement last year, he’s thirty.
    If we had to do it again, neither my brother or I would play the game, or allow our sons to play. Just isn’t worth it.
    But, it is a great game!

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  4. “It’s particularly dispiriting because as former players, many sports commentators know what goes on in locker rooms across the country. ”

    And:

    “If players were aware of the dangers associated with head injuries, I might be slightly-less worked up. … Concussions simply aren’t understood as potentially life-threatening injuries…”

    Which is it?

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    • I think they are both “it.”

      The first applies to the knowledge of veterans, coaches, medical personnel, commentators, and other who have been in the industry a long time but have strong incentives to not be frank with newcomers to the sport of the real dangers. The second applies to rookies, college students, and even younger kids and their parents who rely on the experience and insights of the first group for guidance.

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  5. More broadly, this raises an interesting question about the dangers a worker should be “allowed” to face. As a former bartender, I know that many of my old workmates WANT to work in smoky bars. In fact, almost all of them smoke anyway. But public health officials have taken it upon themselves to say “no, you can’t do that.” Which raises some really ridiculous situations. For instance, when there is an MMA fight in Madison Square Garden, the fighters are allowed to deliver roundhouse kicks to the others’s head, then choke them into unconsciousness. But observers can’t smoke because the peanut vendor might catch a whiff of secondhand smoke. And we need to protect workers! I can hire someone to guide me through class five whitewater rapids, I can hire a guy to get on a rickety platform a thousand feet off the ground to clean my windows so I can have a nice view. But if I am the owner operator of a tractor-trailer in Ohio, I can’t smoke in the truck because other workers (me) might inhave the smoke. After I exhale it.

    I think it’s interesting to see which of these dangerous jobs elicit our sympathy, even legislative action. We watch Ice Road truckers. I guess that job is “necessary” in a sense. It’s the only way to get aterials to those areas. But what about those crab boats. People die so other people can eat king crabs? Why not tell people to eat less-dangerously-procured blue crabs? Or carrots? We seem happy to tell SOME people to suffer and forego their desires. But others… hey. Keep watching the MMA. Cheer when they knee each other in the face. But come on. Don’t light up. What about the peanut vendor!

    Weird.

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    • Sam M –

      1) What I meant to convey is that football organizations won’t acknowledge the concussion problem. Obviously, many former players recognize the danger of head injuries from personal experience.

      2) I think the real problem is that players simply aren’t aware of the risks involved. Until football organizations actually recognize the problem, athletes simply don’t know what they’re getting into.

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  6. “we can stop glorifying hard-hitting collisions as some sort of iconic symbol of all that is good and right about American football.”

    Can we? Sometimes, isn’t the allure of something attached to the danger involved? People don’t watch Big Wave surfing or NASCAR despite the danger, but BECAUSE of it. In fact, people PARTICIPATE in these activities because of the danger. Ever see an episode of “Jackass”? I guess you could say, “Hey, instead of careening down a hill in a shopping cart, you could have a race that involves bicycles on a nice, flat track. After all, wouldn’t that more clearly measure the cyclists’ skills?”

    True! But these events are not designed to measure skill and skill alone. Part of the allure is that only certain people are willing to take these risks. This is nothing new. This is why football has been popular in America for a very long time. It takes a certain kind of person to play safety in the NFL, to drive a stock car, to ride a shopping cart down a hill in San Francisco, to leap over the Grand Canyon in a rocket-powered motorcycle, etc. And if safety was foremost, you might have everyone play tackle football. But not only do fans not want to watch it, 14-year-old boys across the country don’t want to play it. They want to crush people. To risk getting crushed. TO show to people that they are willing to get crushed. So, to a certain extent, hard hitting violence is glorified as a symbol of all that’s right and good about football… because it is.

    This might be less civil than everyone playing chess. But it’s more civil than, say, living in ancient Sparta.

    Young guys are violent people.

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  7. In the meantime, of course, there is boxing, where the whole point is to give your opponent a concussion. It would be difficult to criticize the NFL for not being safe enough as long as boxing in any form is going on.

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  8. Sorry, something happened to the rest of my post. I made the point that dangerous as the NFL is today, it was far worse in the past. They used to wear leather helmets, and quarterbacks could be sacked even after they had thrown the ball. Many rule changes–the “in the grasp” rule, face mask penalty, horse collar penalty, roughing the kicker, roughng the QB–have been made to protect players. Many of these changes have come over the vehement opposition of fans who moan that it makes football a sissy sport.

    I think one overlooked problem is that players today are much bigger (diet, steroids) and faster than they were in the past. So collisions occur with much greater force. This to some extent compensates for the safer rules in play.

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    • Actually, Andy Smith, the GQ article makes a pretty interesting point about helmets and padding. It turns out that physical conditioning has decisively won the arms race against headgear, so the marginal increase in protection afforded by helmets is totally outweighed by the speed and intensity of the modern game. The author actually suggests getting rid of helmets entirely, if only to make players and coaches more cognizant of on-field head injuries.

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      • For reading on this very subject I would recommend anything by Edward Tenner, but especially Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences or Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity. He is a highly respected historian of technology who makes many points, but spends a lot of time analyzing why American football is among the most dangerous and life threatening sports you can play while at the same time using the most padding and other protective gear.

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      • Heh, yeah. I understand that boxing prior to gloves was *SAFER* for everybody involved because everybody knew that if you hit a guy too hard, you’d break your hand and then the hand would be useless.

        Now there is (almost) no fear when it comes to breaking one’s hand… and, of course, that means that people can hit their opponents (in the head, say) a lot harder and a lot more often.

        This ends up being a lot worse for boxers.

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        • Yup, apparently the bare-knucklers used a lower stance which involved much less punching to the face. Whack someone in the ribs & you might break one, smack them in the face & you’re performing mind carnage.

          Putting gloves on just means that there’s more weight hitting the skull, banging the brain around inside its cage a little more. It makes things worse! Makes for less tearing open of the features (& knuckles) but does precisely nothing to reduce the cerebral damage. Increase the surface area all you want, people are still receiving massive blows to the head.

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  9. Pro wrestling has similar stories. Chris Benoit provides the best cautionary example. (I recall reading that doctors couldn’t believe that he was still functional, let alone wrestling, when they looked at his brain). Someone gets a concussion, then waits it out, then gets back on that horse, then gets another concussion, then turns… into someone else.

    In reading an article about Bret Hart, I saw a snippet of an interview with a concussion doctor who told a story about 3 hockey patients he had. They all had concussions and he said that he gave them all six months of not-quite bed rest. Don’t do anything. Good god, don’t do anything exertive. Two of them followed instructions. One of them said “well, I want to keep my cardio, I’ll just do an hour of the exercise bike every day”. The two got better. The one didn’t.

    There’s too much money to be made, too much adrenaline given by the roar of the crowd, too many rats hanging out at the hotel, too many doctors marking out in the lockerroom willing to prescribe anything in exchange for an autographed photo. Too must testosterone.

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  10. “Concussions simply aren’t understood as potentially life-threatening injuries, which is why coaching staffs in high school, college and the NFL simply ignore them.”

    Small quibble with this. I can’t speak to colleges and the NFL, or even most school districts, but many of the local high school athletic departments take concussions very seriously. I see lots of high school players who are instructed to get medical clearance before they’re allowed to return to play. (We have a protocol that they’re expected to follow before they can return, based upon the severity of the concussion.) It does seem that the culture is changing a bit, though obviously the coverage of professional football that you describe isn’t helping.

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  11. If there is a huch campaign at the Football Industrial complex, a lot of people didn’t get the memo. The NFL just released a report linking head injuries with dementia. Go to the NFL network and search for dementia. You get a lot of articles. As for ESPN, there were several stories about Tim Tebow this weekend, one from an analyst arguing that he shouldn’t play.

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  12. Understood. But i mean it. some people didn’t get the memo. People at ESPN, within the NFL and elsewhere are beginning to address these questions. Which is a good thing. Mike Webster spent years wallowing in misery, bot during his career and after.

    A guy like Tebow goes down today, and it’s headlines.

    Again, the bigger question is going to be one of… who decides? As mentioned before, we let a lot of people do a lot of really dangerous things. we allow people to be window washers and MMA fighters. But we don’t allow people to tend bar in a smokey restaurant. This is strange to me.

    Where will this issue end up? Te complicating factor, I think, is that for the most part, the players (the workers) are the ones pushing to play. It’s not like Roger Goodell is swooping in and threatening to cancel contracts. As a high school kid, I purposely hid the affects of a concussion so I would not get pulled. And I wasn’t getting paid a dime.

    I agree that the NFL has been fast and loose with the info here. But things are comning around. I do think, however, that it raises interesting questions about who is in charge in these kinds of situations.

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  13. Sam: “we allow people to be window washers and MMA fighters. But we don’t allow people to tend bar in a smokey restaurant. This is strange to me.”

    This is not meant as a complete answer to a good point, but window washers have all kinds of safety equipment, which in theory at least should prevent accidents. While accidents will happen, the fact remains that if the equipment is not defective, and the person follows the rules, accidents are not supposed to happen. In contrast, a certain percentage of people exposed to second-hand smoke will definitely develop lung disease that they otherwise would not have developed. This is simply a statistical fact, there is nothing we can do in advance, even in theory, to prevent this, other than ban the smoke. So any owner who allows an employee to work in a smoke-filled environment knows for certain that he is putting the employee at risk, engaging in behavior that if replicated widely, guarantees a certain number of cases of lung disease.

    Spectators at an MMA fight (another of your examples) do not pay their admission knowing or expecting that they will be exposed to a carcinogen, and even if they claim they don’t care, the venue operators are vulnerable to lawsuits. The fighters themselves can’t sue anyone—yet. Stay tuned, though.

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  14. “So any owner who allows an employee to work in a smoke-filled environment knows for certain that he is putting the employee at risk”

    And you know, statistically, that the safety equipment will fail in a given number of cases. And that from time to time, statistically, wind and other elements will exceed the capacity of safety equipment to save lives. Clearly, we know that if we allow people to wash windows, people will die from it. If you can assume 100 effectiveness of safety harnesses, why can’t I assume 100 percent perfection of ventilation systems? We would both be arguing in bad faith.

    Moreover, it seems to me that if the real reason for these kinds of regulations were worker safety, we would start with the most dangerous professions and work on those. Last I checked, the most dangerous jobs were fishing and logging. Working at a smokey Applebees while you are getting a degree in Womens Studies does not rank all that high. As a matter of fact, last I checked, the relative risk of working around Second-hand smoke is something like 1.19. meaning that for every 50,000 people who work around SHS, one will die.

    Complicating the factor is that the relative risk assumes that the workers is around SHS for a full eight hours a day. I know of know bar that is smokey, heavily smokey at ALL times. Moreover, the relative risk assumes a full 40-hour work week for a full 40-year career. Check with the BLS. The number of people who work in the service industry for a full 40-hour week is miniscule. Even more miniscule is the number of people who work in the industry for a full career. Bartending and waiting tables are the most transient positions in the economy.

    If you really want to save lives, statistically speaking, you will save many more by banning football than by banning smokey bars.

    If you are running a window washing service in any given city for any number of years, there is a pretty good chance someone will die as a result of working for you. If you own a bar, employ the same number of people, and allow smoking, there is almost no chance any of your employees will die from that exposure. Because the risk is so small. And because such a small percentage of people will work in that environment for a substantial period of time.

    Then this puzzling entry: “Spectators at an MMA fight (another of your examples) do not pay their admission knowing or expecting that they will be exposed to a carcinogen…”

    I said nothing about spectators. And advocates of smoking bans don’t either. They carefully craft the laws to protect WORKERS. I was talking about peanut vendors who work at Madison Square Garden, who are protected from SHS, while the MMA fighters are not protected from somersault savate kicks to the face.

    If this REALLY is about worker safety…. can you justify that? Does it make you wonder, at all, if there might be another agenda at work?

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  15. Quick:

    You have a daughter. She tells you she has three career choices: One is being an MMA fighter or boxer. Another is working as a window washer at the Empire State Building. The other is working as a waitress at a Red Lobster that allows smoking.

    The pay, the prestige, the hours are all the same. She has no preference. So she decides she will base her decision on safety alone.

    Which career to you advise her to pursue?

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    • Sam, I wasn’t arguing that MMA is safer. I made the point earlier that boxing is more dangerous than football. But it’s difficult to have any contact sport that doesn’t have a risk of injury, and it’s also difficult to wash windows without a risk of injury. If we are going to allow the sport or the occupation–which is a separate argument that I wasn’t addressing–injuries will happen.

      But it is possible to sell peanuts at a sporting event without being subject to smoke. All you have to do is ban smoking. Being exposed to smoke is not an inherent part of selling peanuts, nor is it an inherent part of watching a sporting or cultural event. One doesn’t have to come up with a strict set of rules about how peanuts are sold, nor about how one witnesses a sporting event.

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  16. “But it is possible to sell peanuts at a sporting event without being subject to smoke. ”

    But it’s not possible to offer Budweiser in a smokey environment if smokey environments are illegal. And many, many bars view the smokey environment as an essential part of their busoiness model. And many patrons view it as an essential part of their night on the town.

    I could parse things in a similar manner. Violence does not have to be part of sporting events. Curling is not inherently violent. Nor is competitive chess. So you can operate a sporting venue without offering violent sports, just like you can have a bar that’s not a smoking bar. You aren’t banning sports! You are banning violence!

    It is just as easy to rid MSG of violence as it is to rid it of smoke. As long as you are sufficiently willing to decide what it is people are selling.

    Why is it that MSG can have a Britney Spears concert that does not allow chokeholds? Upper cuts? But it has to allow these things when MMA and boxing are in town?

    Ask around. Many bar owners consider “ambience” a crucial part of what they sell. Some ambience is white table cloths and crystal. other ambience is Marlboro and Bud Light. if you can ban the latter and tell people what to aim for, why can’t you tell MSG that MMA is off limits. After all, lots of venues make money by offering theater and dance. Those things aren’t violent.

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  17. The simple fact is that the equipment plus the conditioning has enabled players to go faster and hit harder. The helmet is a lethal weapon. I played in the days before hard plastic, with leather helmets and shoulderpads and hip pads. We were taught tackling techniques (head and shoulder in from of the runner’s body, not helmet for direct impact, There were no iron faceguards which protected the tackler from reciprocal damage.

    The parallel to look at is rugby which uses only earguards, no shoulder or hip pads and fewer serious head injuries. The difference is self control versus out of control.

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  18. “Which is why there are no pubs left in Britain, which has banned smoking. Or Ireland. Or any bars left in New York. Everywhere which sold business has now closed down, because of how integral people smoking in-doors is.”

    James, stop being a doofus and respond to the point at hand. At least SOME bars and restaurants claim that smokers are integral to the business model. And some of them are correct. Some places shut down.

    Regardless, the larger point was whether this same claim could be made for businesses that allow violence as part of their business model. someone claimed that it IS integral. You can’t have boxing without violence. But you CAN, clearly, have a venue like MSG without boxing. So ban the face-punching and have them stage 42nd street and Cats. Lots of venues in New York make money staging Cats and other nonviolent spectator events.

    Nobody is saying that smoking is integral to all drinking establishments. Your reaction to that is, OK, lets ban smoking, But all kinds of non-integral things go on in all kinds of venues. And people die. I can name you, off the top of my head, about 15 boxers and 30 racecar drivers who have died as a direct result of the fact that people want to watch them do dangerous things.

    How many dead bartenders can you name?

    And if you truly want to protect workers, why allow MMA and stock car racing? The dangerous activities clearly are not crucial to business success.

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    • Read the goddamn article linked to, you goddamn pro-business fool. NASCAR can ensure that there are no deaths, something impossible to manage for venues which allow smoking. Second hand smoke will kill a few, & there’s nothing which can be done for that. You can set up “non-smoking” zones, but the air-borne tar will happily disregard them. According the workers will catch a lung-full. Legislation protecting them here in London hasn’t killed pubs, not even those which were seemingly dependent upon their “smoky” ambience previously. Turns out: that’s a load of bullshit. People will show up to drink socially regardless of whether they have to go outside, so as to avoid polluting worker’s lungs, or not.

      You & your ideological objection can fuck off & stop killing workers.

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  19. “NASCAR can ensure that there are no deaths, something impossible to manage for venues which allow smoking.”

    Do tell, anti-business fool, how NASCAR can accomplish this?

    Seriosuly. i would love to hear it. so would NASCAR drivers.

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