Joanna Schroeder investigates the efforts made by the NFL to help reduce brain injuries in football players, and wonders whether anything is enough.
While on a recent trip to a toy store with my family, my oldest son was disappointed to see that the section of toys he’d wanted to look at had been picked clean. I tried to distract him by gently tossing him a Nerf football, which only served to irritate him more. He looked at his dad, who was about 8 aisles away, and sent the ball arcing toward him. My husband caught the ball, and the two of us stared at each other, amazed. It was a beautiful pass, the kind you watch in slo-mo as it soars past. Especially impressive given that Izz had never thrown a football in his life.
This is the kid who, when asked which sports he wanted to play, had answered, “Rock Climbing and Ceramics.” Yes, the worldwide sporting phenomenon of… pottery? My son wanted to be MVP of pinch pots. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting to see my son perfectly lob a ball he’d never thrown before.
This becomes more confusing when you understand that we’ve committed to not letting our sons play organized football because of the growing evidence that head trauma sustained in the game can lead to brain damage and diseases like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), described as Dr. Robert Stern as, “a progressive brain disease caused by repetitive blows to the head.”
Given that a kid who starts playing tackle football at age 6 and plays through high school will take approximately 7,000 to 10,000 blows to the head, and those who receive multiple concussions start to show signs of CTE as young as 18, the decision to put your kid into football shouldn’t be made lightly.
Former Pro Wrestler Christopher Nowinski, who is co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), explains the effects of CTE further: “Essentially a protein in your brain becomes toxic to your cells, and cells start dying at some point while you’re an athlete. And usually by your forties, you’re showing symptoms like memory problems, depression, [and] personality changes.”
The initial damage happens when you’re receiving multiple head blows, but the brain damage itself doesn’t come at the moment your head is concussed. Instead, something inside your brain continues to kill your brain off as you age—regardless of whether you ever hit your head again. This eventually leads to full-blown dementia. At Boston University Medical School, the CSTE has been doing research into CTE, studying the brains of former athletes who have passed away, starting with John Grimsley who suffered from at least 8 documented concussions while playing in the NFL.
As is explained in the video embedded at the top of this article, Grimsley had as much tau protein (the toxic protein that marks cell death), as a retired boxer did at 73. Except Grimsley was only 45.
As a result of the work of organizations like CSTE at Boston University, the NFL and other pro sports organizations have begun to recognize the damage being done to these players, and CTE has become a major talking point. Even President Obama said that if he’d had a son, he might not have allowed him to play football at all.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must share that after I initially wrote about CTE and the death of Junior Seau, I was contacted by representatives from the NFL, and had the opportunity to join them last month in a conference for writers. I went into it dubious, expecting shiny corporate talking heads to meet talking points that would minimize CTE and glorify football, further selling the capitalist dream that is the multi-billion dollar industry.
But I was pleasantly surprised to hear one word continuously uttered throughout the day: Culture. Scott Hallenbeck, the Executive Director of USA Football, expressed a serious commitment to changing football culture. There was an ackowledgement that many aspects of the culture surrounding pro football need to change in order to make a safer game for everyone—pro players and kids.
And the NFL seems to be taking the most recent findings about concussions seriously. In September 2012 it was announced that the NFL was donating $30 million to the NIH to research brain trauma. Just a few days ago, the union that represents NFL players announced a $100 million dollar donation to Harvard Medical School to study NFL injuries. They’re also offering support to youth programs by supplying them with new equipment and other resources. Most promising is USA Football’s awesome program called Heads Up Football.
USA Football and the NFL are embarking on to change the culture of America’s favorite sport. This comprehensive solution to player safety promotes concussion awareness and management, coaching education, proper equipment fitting and Heads Up Tackling as well as a set of recommended standards for parents, coaches and leagues.
You can learn more about what the non-profit organization is doing to help make football safer for youth players in the video embedded below, but as it stands right now, the availability of these incredible programs is still extremely limited. In the next year, USA Football will begin slowly rolling out programs, targeting one suburban program and one program in a disadvantaged community in each state.
The NFL has also made on-field changes to help reduce concussions, such as moving the kickoff line and positioning medical doctors to serve as spotters from boxes above the game, with hot lines directly to the field, so they can be on the lookout for any behavior indicating a player needs to be evaluated for a head injury. These, along with other changes, have reduced concussions in the NFL by 30-50%.
In my perspective, purely as a parent, this seems like a great start. I just want to see more, and I want to see it faster. And I want to see good, safe football programs for youth of any socioeconomic background, so that it’s not just the wealthy boys whose brains we protect.
And it’s time we change football culture. It’s not the sport of football, or even the NFL, that needs to go. It’s the notion that men and boys are disposable objects for our entertainment. We have a messed-up capitalist ideal that tells us that becoming rich and famous is worth the risk of brain trauma, including early-onset dementia and CTE.
Even President Obama, in an interview with The New Republic, mentions that he’s not as worried about NFL players and head injury as he is with college players. I too am very worried about college players (and I’m not even going to get into the ways in which the NCAA gets rich off exploiting young people), but did Junior Seau‘s wealth and fame keep him from CTE? From taking his own life? Are his wealth and fame a consolation to his family, who lost a son and brother? I’d venture to guess they aren’t.
But for some reason, in our culture, we feel a little better about enjoying watching human beings having their skulls pounded into the ground because we believe that the glamour of the pro player’s life somehow makes up for the degradation of his emotional and intellectual capabilities.
The NFL has the opportunity to pull injured players faster, and to keep them out longer. It may frustrate fans (and players and coaches!), but it’s a necessary part of showing younger players that acknowledging injury and being evaluated are as much a part of the game as playing through the pain. If they see their heroes being cautious about head injuries, they will see that their value lies not just in what their bodies can bear, but also in their inherent humanity.
There are many ways for us to help, too. Make sure you read and understand the CDC’s guidelines for concussions. Most concussions are suffered by children on bikes and playgrounds, not in organized athletics. So as parents, we need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of concussion and get kids prompt and thorough medical care after they hit their heads. (You may be surprised to learn that a person doesn’t have to lose consciousness to have a concussion!).
Also, check out USA Football’s programs and see if there is a way you can help bring their policies for safe practice and game play into your community’s youth sports organizations. As a parent, be proactive when your kids are injured. Demand that coaches reduce the number of hits a kid takes during practice. Encourage kids to point out injuries or signs that something is wrong in themselves and their teammates, and never shame them for asking for help.
Ultimately, the culture surrounding football which dictates that men are disposable instruments for our viewing pleasure needs to change. And I believe it will, as long as the NFL is willing to lead the way. But please, NFL—more help, and faster!—Our kids are depending upon you.
What do you think? Would you let your kids play football? How about the NFL’s efforts to help reduce head injuries—will they work? Do you think the NFL truly cares about our kids, and about men?
Comment here, or tweet to us @goodmenproject – hashtag #HeadsUpFB and tell us what you think.