The extreme sports world has been given a second blow following Dave Mirra's death: An autopsy found that the man who gave the world the double backflip had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), a condition stemming from repeated trauma that can lead to dementia and depression. Mirra’s is the first diagnosis in action sports, and it has prompted a huge internal look in the world of extreme sports, from motocross to BMX, freestyle skiing to skateboarding. We recently spoke to legendary X-Games competitor Tony Hawk about the diagnosis and what it means.
“Obviously [Mirra’s diagnosis is] a concern for any of us who are in sort of high-action sports and have had concussions — and I’ve definitely had my share of concussions,” Hawk told us by phone. "You know, I’m all ears when it comes to what we could be doing about it or how to prevent or how to raise awareness. And obviously the studies that are being done, it’s very new territory.”
In the beginning, safety was hardly a top priority for extreme sports. Hawk began skating professionally in 1982, at age 14, a time when helmets were optional. Just look to the covers of Thrasher magazine in that time period, and you’ll see most high-flying images showing locks flowing, free from the confines of a helmet. But as the sport has gained attention — from the pages of an indie magazine to ESPN — the gear has improved. "The safety equipment has gotten exponentially better,” Hawk says. "I know for sure that my helmet has saved my life more than once, and I can’t say that my helmets in the early days did as much. So I feel like that has been a big improvement."
Hawk notes that the next generation of skaters will benefit all the more from ever-improving safety equipment, but also teaching that doesn’t just emphasize ever-bigger, badder stunts. “There are ways to actually learn how to fall. There are facilities available to kids these days, where they can go learn these maneuvers into foam pits. We didn’t have those luxuries either. So it’s a much better way to approach what we do now — it’s a much safer environment.” Hawk also has a connection to young skaters thanks in part to The Tony Hawk Foundation, which has helped build over 500 skate parks across the country.
While Dave Mirra is just the first case — while a high-profile one — that has linked extreme sports to C.T.E, the disease has been increasingly studied in its link with two impact sports — the National Football League and boxing. Mirra’s death is likely to widen that spotlight as athletes, fans, and parents ask for more research on the impact to athlete’s brains. "I’m definitely paying attention,” Hawk says, "and if I feel like there’s something effective that I can do, I’ll do it."