We want to know what you think.
For years, the NFL has obfuscated and tried to push under the rug the serious long-term health effects of playing football, and the prevalence of head injuries, concussions and brain trauma affecting its players. More recently, the medical evidence began to mount, the now-suffering former players’ stories got out, and those players took action against the league in a class action lawsuit. But before then, like other industries whose core businesses were tied to deep health problems, it had denied – for as long as it was possible – that there was a link between football and long-term neurocognitive conditions.
That simply is no longer possible.
The question is: Now what?
Football is a game where you hit people, hard. But we are only now beginning to get hard evidence that a clear picture of the statistical risks of debilitating injury (extremely high) and just how devastating the impact of those injuries are on peoples lives.
We have now seen the data coming out of a class action lawsuit brought by thousands of former players now suffering from debilitating brain injuries who had sued the league, alleging it had concealed dangers related to concussions and other issues related to long-term health concerns. (Last year, the NFL had reached a tentative $765 million settlement with thousands of former players.)
We have seen the reports from the NFL’s own experts estimating that almost 1 in 3 NFL players would suffer brain trauma during retirement based on injuries incurred while playing. And as we reported in last week’s The NFL’s Concussion Problem Just Got A Lot Worse, we have seen the new findings from the nation’s largest brain bank focused on traumatic brain injury indicating that there was evidence of a degenerative brain disease in 76 of the 79 former players it has examined.
We know that former Bear’s quarterback, Jim McMahon (now 55 years old), finds himself in the bathroom getting ready to go out but can’t remember where he is going.
We also know that several former players who either committed suicide or other acts of serious violence were suffering from brain trauma – among them Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Jovan Belcher. This raises questions as to what degree head injuries play in players’ violent off-the-field behaviors.
As we process the shocking data, we are being forced to confront the troubling issue of health and safety of NFL football players more so than ever before. And this is not merely an NFL issue for the men of the gridiron. In fact, it is a bigger question for our boys who play in youth football leagues, in high school, and in college.
Now that the genie is out of the bottle, what does the future hold for football? Is there a future for football?
Youth Football and Head Injuries By The Numbers
Football is the number one participation sport in our high schools. Last year, nearly 1.1 million boys played high school football for the 14,000+ football teams across the country. And while the numbers for youth football have been on the decline, according to USA Football, there are 2.6 million boys ages 6-14 playing organized tackle football.
A long term medical study by The Center for Disease Control’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System found that football accounted for nearly 21% of all traumatic brain injuries among males ages 10-14, and that from the ages of 15 to 19, football accounted for more than 30% of all traumatic brain injuries among males.
Another study by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences of data from 2010-2012 found that high school football players had a concussion rate (11.2) per 10,000 athletic exposures, far exceeding that of the next two most likely sports, boys lacrosse (6.9) and girls soccer (6.7).
The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research’s annual survey revealed that in 2013, there were 17 football-related fatalities — far more than any other sport. Two more high school football player fatalities for 2014 happened just last week. The very same week that medical studies were released showing traumatic brain injuries in 76 of 79 former NFL footballer’s brains that they studied, two high school players were killed as a result of on-field football collisions. On Wednesday, 16 year-old Tom Cutinella, a Long Island high school student, died shortly after crashing into another player. On Sunday, Demario Harris Jr., a 17 year-old from Troy, Alabama was pronounced dead a few days after he collapsed on the field after making a tackle.
In the college ranks, coaches at high profile programs, like Coach Brady Hoke of University of Michigan, continue to allow players taking hard potentially concussion-inducing hits to return to the field of play. As reported by the New York Times this week in College Players Don’t Tell of Hits to Head, Studies Find, recently released studies of college football concluded that a there is a huge amount of unreported concussions: “[F]or every diagnosed concussion, players sustained six substantial hits that they suspected might have caused a concussion but did not report.” As the studies authors noted, “In youth, high school and college sports environments, there are many incentives to keep an athlete in play even when he/she has sustained an injury, including a concussion,” and that “athletes themselves often want to remain in play as to not let down their teammates and coach.”
Our Focus Must Be On Youth Football
Dedicated Medical Resources
Experts like Dr. Anthony Breitbach, who is the Associate Professor/Director of the Athletic Training Program at Saint Louis University, agree that the focus must be on youth sports:
One of the biggest areas of concussions where we’re missing the boat is that’s its becoming more and more evident that by the time they get to the NFL, these players are already damaged. We can be upset with the NFL, but we need to focus on the lower levels, because the process that is leading to the CTE injuries is starting there, much earlier than we previously thought.
In other words, many pro players had concussions and head injuries during adolescence; their first concussions were not in the NFL.
Dr. Breitbach also notes that the NFL has the financial and medical resources to better address the issue with dedicated sports medicine staff and reformed procedures. Moreover, players can seek to address the risk they are taking on in their collective bargaining agreement. But, Breitbach continued, this is not the case for the children playing at the youth levels of the sport. Coaches charged with the responsibility for the teams aren’t sufficiently trained to deal with the complex issue of head injuries.
Education in Schools
Another development that is worth tracking is an educational approach: teaching students about concussions, in the same way that we teach students about other public health concerns. By teaching students that concussions are not “a badge of honor,” we can ensure more self-reporting of potential concussions. In hockey hotbed Canada, one of their largest school districts has started a detailed 9th grade course on concussions and traumatic brain injuries, and considering how to adapt the course for elementary school students as well. The school board’s health and physical education coordinator, Joanna Walsh, who helped to put the program in place explains:
If we’re going to change the culture around concussion like we changed the culture around smoking and around drinking and driving, we need to get at our next generation of kids.
Training on the Fields
Seeking to allay concerns about concussions and to address the issue at the youth levels, the NFL “Heads Up Football Program” initiative seeks to provide coaches with support and training on how to handle concussions.
However, questions have been raised as to whether and to what extend this can be effective. During a round table discussion with Commissioner Goodell last month, former player, coach and broadcaster, John Madden voiced these concerns quite directly:
“[T]hey can’t learn them in a short time,” Madden said of the techniques taught to coaches in the Heads Up Football program. “I was a coach, and I put a lot of education and experience into coaching. . . . How long does it take to get a certificate?”
“An hour and a half,” Goodell said.
“And all due respect to the program, I don’t believe in it,” Madden replied. “I respect coaches, I respect what good coaches do. I know that you don’t learn to be a coach in an hour and a half.”
Madden went on to say that he did not believe that any kids under the age of 10 should be playing contact or tackle football:
I’m a firm believer that there’s no way that a six-year-old should have a helmet on and learn a tackling drill,” Madden said. “There’s no way. Or a seven-year-old or an eight-year-old. They’re not ready for it. Take the helmets off kids. . . . Start at six years old, seven years old, eight years old, nine years old. They don’t need a helmet. They can play flag football. And with flag football you can get all the techniques. Why do we have to start with a six-year-old who was just potty trained a year ago and put a helmet on him and tackle? . . . We’ll eventually get to tackling.
Stop Playing Football?
On the other end of the spectrum from those calling for increased medical resources and education are those that are simply coming to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be playing the game of football.
A poll by the Wall Street Journal from earlier this year found that 40% of parents would sway their children away from football because of concerns about concussions. Of course, that leaves many – a majority – who would not.
Our Readers Weight In – On The Future of Football and On What We Should Be Doing
Are we going to see the death of the game of football? Is Pro football or youth football at risk?
“Studies like this are going to not just change the game of football, but perhaps eliminate it all together. Scary stuff.”
“Not sure if the NFL/College football will be played as we know it in the future. Something akin to Flag Football will happen if equipment doesn’t improve. This whole thing is thing I’d point to in the continued growth of soccer as a sport here.”
Susan Anderson Rogers:
“I don’t think pro football is what is at risk. The salaries, the mystique, the overwhelming celebrity – our culture will accept that there are dangers and that those who choose to play at that level accept the risks. The question is how many parents decide that it is no longer an option for their kids, and thus reduce the numbers playing. But it will take generations for any decline to impact the NFL. And I don’t see Friday Night Lights at risk anytime soon.”
“Pro-football may not be at risk with the celebrity status and salary, but a lot of people have been asking “what parent would let their child play for that team?” in regards to UMich and Shane Morris. Facing the “concussion problem” without the status/salary and when the player is still a “kid” seems to have more of an impact on the public.”
“As long as playing tackle football is seen as a rite of passage into manhood in large swaths of our country, it will take generations to change. One can be critical of football as a right of passage, and of rites of passage in general, but we cannot so easily evade the evolutionary hardwiring that makes males seek out those challenges and the biology that makes those males prominent in their immediate social environment. And by prominent I do not mean only to similarly aged females, but to the elder generation of that society as well. In so many towns, football players are the young warrior class. But, as athletes face choices and talent is slowly siphoned away from football into other sports, it will have a negative impact on the game. And as parental pressure builds to prevent a child from playing football, that will have an impact, too.”
“I mean, if tomorrow we changed it all to flag football, do kids lose all resilience? Can we no longer build “toughness”? Can people no longer experience adversity together on a team? This is coming from someone who thinks it is a beautiful sport. I love football. I am saying football is nowhere near “necessary”. It is certainly not sufficient for character building. Add that to the extreme amount of “trickle down” pressure being put on kids earlier and earlier to “perform”, and I have great pause.”
“I think the question isn’t so much its effect on parents in the upper class and upper middle class. It’s more a question of how it will affect support for kids in economic impoverishment (sports as a way out) and the South, where support for high school sports is incredibly strong (same might be true in rural areas outside of the South as well, where Friday night football games are a major social event).”
Are there changes that can be made to the game to improve the situation?
“For a while, football had rigid substitution rules. For example, in the NCAA, from 1954-64, you could only substitute one player per down, which meant that most of your players were “two-way” players as well as contributors on special teams. (It also would have encouraged some teams to have a “regular” player handle punts and/or place kicking.) I think bringing this rule back (perhaps relaxed a bit, to allow 2 or 3 substitutions per down) could make the game safer. The main reason is that players would get smaller (a 350 pound lineman just will not survive if he has to in the game for 50 minutes or so), and if players have to pace themselves the speed of the game slows down. It would be a totally different brand of football, though. Today football is very highly specialized, and we would lose that. Overall quality of play would drop. But if one-platoon football makes the game safer, it may be worth the trade-off.”
Others have discussed the counter-intuitive step of removing helmets and hard pads:
— angry_buddha (@angry_buddha) October 1, 2014
Or perhaps, in the future, the way we will “play” football is by playing Madden on our PlayStations.
Our readers have started this important and multi-threaded discussion on the future of football and what we should be doing as a society, as parents, as sports fans, to address the massive health risks.
What do *you* think? Drop us a comment below, comment on Facebook, or Tweet us using #GMPSports.
Let’s keep this conversation going.
(Photo Credit: Associated Press/LM Otero)
For more Good Men Project Sports coverage of the recent issues coming out of the NFL, check out:
- The NFL’s Concussion Problem Just Got A Lot Worse (Sept. 30, 2014)
- Roger S. Goodell, Will You Please Go Now? (Sept. 22, 2014)
- We May Be Right. We May Be Crazy: Musings on the NFL’s Violence Problem (Sept. 16, 2014)
- The National Football League: Too Big To Fail? (Sept. 13, 2014)