[Originally published on Stamford magazine's website.]
Last year, I took the risk of being blackballed by a nation of rabid fans of the pigskin (and more than a few friends of my own) to ask the question: What is the future of football? In light of all the life-threatening injuries and dangerously destructive playing across various age groups, I wondered if I was the only one forecasting that the game will someday be outlawed because of the traumas that result?
I’m still asking the question.
We live in an age in which parents research the safest strollers, buy the cars with the highest safety ratings and don’t let children ride bicycles without helmets. How much longer can they sign their kids up for this dangerous sport? Then again, we are living in the age of Sandy Hook, so how safe is anything, starting with first grade? It’s hard to know what to legislate first.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in the years between 2009 and 2011, 33 states and Washington, D.C., passed laws meant to prevent concussions in youth sports, and 15 more introduced legislation in 2012. (Connecticut passed its version, “When in Doubt, Sit It Out,” in 2010. Shame on Montana and Arkansas, the only holdouts.) Inspiration for many of the so-called Lystedt Laws was the case of Zackery Lystedt, who was permanently disabled by a life-threatening brain injury in 2006 when he was 13 and sent back to play later after suffering a concussion.
In addition, since 2010, the National Federation of State High School Associations has required players to be removed from a game if they show signs of a concussion. Together, the changes have made death less common, with only two brain-injury deaths among 1.1 million high school football players in 2011. But 0.86 per 100,000 still suffered permanent brain damage.
That number is way too high, especially when you look at what might be in store for all 100,000 of those sample players. Last month, ESPN/Frontline’s blog about health issues in football reported that Boston University researchers had found 28 new cases of brain damage in deceased football players (15 of them NFL players). Alarmingly, the same study found that problems can begin long before a pro career, as it included two high school players who died in their teens. Specifically, those problems can take the form of an Alzheimer’s-like condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head.
The suicide in February 2011 of Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears safety who donated his brain to science and was determined to have had CTE, was just a first down. (Any medical reasons for other NFL tragedies in recent months, the murder-suicide of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, 25, and his 22-year-old girlfriend on Dec. 1 and suicide of San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau on May 2, are unknown. But the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that “[w]ithin two years of retiring, three out of four NFL players will be one or more of the following: alcohol or drug addicted; divorced; or financially distressed/bankrupt. Junior Seau was all three.” Furthermore, the suicide rate among NFL players is nearly six times the national average.)
Said New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni in December: “There’s something rotten in the NFL, an obviously dysfunctional culture that either brings out sad, destructive behavior in its fearsome gladiators or fails to protect them and those around them from it.”
But those are professional players, who have been taking the hardest hits for the longest time, with the most pressure to keep playing through whatever pain they encounter. What about younger, more casual athletes, like high school students? True, football is like religion in some quarters, but I still have to wonder if that’s going to change.
As someone who is more than acquainted with brain trauma, I feel particularly sensitive to the future of this game, but I wasn’t alone when I started questioning it last year. PBS’s “Frontline” featured a segment called “Football High,” which explored the new face of high school football, and it wasn’t at all pretty.
According to the show, “Football observers and sports journalists alike agree that on average, high school players’ size, speed and strength have increased dramatically over the past five to 10 years. At Euless Trinity in Texas, which has been ranked the No. 1 high school team in the country, 18 of the 89 varsity players weigh over 250 pounds.” That translates to a lot of pressure on today’s young footballers to not only outperform but also take blows that nobody should have to take.
But what really astounded me was the number of concussions high school players sustain each year, according to “Frontline”: a whopping 60,000. Many of them go untreated because of a common notion that players should be “tough” and that injuries are part of what makes fans buy tickets. And if that’s not enough to raise your eyebrows, consider a study from the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Between 1990 and 2007, the study says, 5.25 million football-related injuries in children between the ages of 6 and 17 were treated in emergency rooms in the U.S.—an increase of 26.5 percent in that time period.
The good news is that the tide, it seems, is beginning to turn. Even the NFL seems to be coming out of its denial about the problem, awarding disability payments to at least three former players after determining that their crippling brain injuries were caused by football. Tech gurus are on the case, trying to lessen the effects of the blows. Maybe football still has a future, but I think it’s time for a Hail Mary.