Josh Satok investigates the long-term consequences of head injuries in football
We have reached a crisis point in football. No, not the fact that Brett Favre has come out of retirement for seemingly the 361st time, or that the Houston Texans somehow managed to beat Peyton Manning and the Colts. There is a more important issue that carries with it serious consequences for millions of people and the very future of the game of football: The prevalence of concussions, head trauma and brain injury in the sport.
A 2000 study found that more than 60 percent of former NFL players had suffered at least one concussion in their careers, and over 25 percent of players had suffered at least three. Those who had been concussed reported difficulties with memory, concentration, speech impediments, headaches and other neurological problems. Another study found the rate of depression among players who had suffered at least three concussions to be over 20 percent, three times the normal rate.
This issue has hit especially close to home for us in the Ivy League, especially in the wake of the recent autopsy of Owen Thomas, a Pennsylvania University football player who committed suicide this past April. An autopsy revealed early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease linked to depression and impulse control that has been discovered in more than 20 deceased NFL players. There is no conclusive evidence that the CTE drove him to kill himself, but it is a definite possibility. Posthumous studies of athletes who suffered from CTE have found that their brains resembled that of an 80-year old with dementia, even when the players were only in their thirties or forties when they died.
Despite increased national focus, representatives of Yale Football don’t seem particularly worried. Coach Tom Williams trusts his medical staff to evaluate injured players and decide when they’ll be ready to return to full-contact action. “Incoming freshmen have ‘HeadMinders’ that register where their brains are, so there is a baseline to determine where damage has occurred,” he said. Defensive back Geoff Dunham, DC ’12, suffered his first concussion last fall during a preseason inter-squad scrimmage. Following an evaluation by sideline personnel, Dunham says he felt no pressure to get back in the game, and wouldn’t have been allowed to anyway. Though he recognizes the inherent dangers of his sport, he does not allow doubt to cloud his mind on game day. “Football is a violent game, and in order to be a good football player you have to embrace that violence,” he said.
It’s important to recognize the scope of the issue. The risk isn’t just limited to NFL players, a population of less than 3,000, even if you allow for expanded offseason rosters of 80 men; nor is it limited to the thousands upon thousands of players at colleges around the country, from the huge Division I powers like Alabama or Ohio State to the tiniest Division III schools that few have ever heard of. Every Friday night, more than half a million high school boys suit up for their teams, and kids are starting to play tackle football at ages as young as five years old. The younger the player, the more damage can be inflicted on still-developing brains. The problem is also compounded at the amateur level by the lack of proper medical supervision. According to one study, only 42 percent of high schools even have access to an athletic trainer, a number that must be even lower at younger ages. The stark reality is that concussions, head injuries and brain damage do not only occur at the highest levels of football. The dangers exist everywhere.
Steps are being taken to try and deal with the problem. New guidelines put in place by the NFL this offseason state that a player must leave the game if he appears to have suffered a concussion, and afterward is not to return to football activities until he is fully asymptomatic, has passed a neuropsychological test, and has been cleared by both the team physician and an independent neurological consultant. NCAA reforms include banning the wedge formation on kickoffs to prevent high-speed collisions, and forcing an injured player to come off the field for at least one play by eliminating a loophole in the rules where a coach used to be able to take a timeout to keep players on the field. The California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for high school sports in the state, has given referees broader authority to sideline an athlete they suspect of having suffered a concussion. But this could only be the beginning.
At a more basic level, there are ways to change the game to at least minimize the risk of head injuries, if not eliminate them altogether. Suggestions range from players wearing more padding to not wearing helmets, from removing an offensive lineman to instituting some kind of hockey-like penalty box system in addition to normal 10-or-15 yard penalties. Many suggest that teams should practice less, as evidence shows that the repeated collisions in practice can be even more dangerous than the relatively fewer number of hits taken in a game. Perhaps instituting more player-by-committee situations, which many teams are already doing with multiple running backs sharing the load instead of one feature back, would cut down on the number of hits, and in turn the risk of suffering serious injury.
In a recent column, Don Banks of Sports Illustrated suggested that the Colts should perhaps hold Bob Sanders, their talented but oft-injured safety, out of the regular season altogether, and only play him in the playoffs. Could this be a new model to prevent injury—play a season with a cast of rotating players and save the true talent for when it matters most? But this wouldn’t eliminate the risk—it would just dilute it. Might a day come when pro football is played with flags instead of tackles? That idea would be laughed off the table faster than the possibility of the Raiders winning the Super Bowl.
The sad reality is that it will be nearly impossible to fundamentally change the game to make it safer. Vince Lombardi himself said, “Football isn’t a contact sport, it’s a collision sport; dancing is a contact sport.” The dangers associated with football are part of its thrill, and who would want to change that? Are fans going to take a stand? Your average football fan views players as modern-day gladiators, and would not object to some being sacrificed for their entertainment, like in ancient Rome. Are owners going to risk tinkering with a formula that has propelled football to its place as a billion dollar industry at the top of the American sporting world? Will coaches hold out their star players if no physician orders them to? Just last week, in the Philadelphia Eagles’ first game, Stewart Bradley collapsed onto the turf, but went back into the game four minutes later because no medical personnel had seen the hit he took or his collapse. The players themselves may be worried about the risks that are now known, but if others are still willing to endure these risks, will they be willing to pass up the chance at fame and fortune that football brings them? Football is the ultimate tough-guy sport. The players want to appear superhuman, and not succumb to the possibility of danger. The player who comes out of a game because of a suspected concussion will be looked at as weak; taking hits and keeping on fighting are hallmarks of football culture.
Given the scope of the problem, the seeming impossibility of ever totally eliminating the dangers involved and the unlikelihood of truly meaningful change being implemented, perhaps a case should be made for banning the game altogether.
As much as the risks may seem to outweigh the benefits of a mere game, taking away football is not the answer. Football is as American as apple pie, and banning the sport would be an unforgivable assault on America’s very identity. It would never be accepted. Even if a ban did go into effect, it is inconceivable that football could ever really die. Like bootleggers during Prohibition, people would continue to play, and with an absence of oversight or regulation, injuries would probably only increase. Besides, football isn’t even the most dangerous sport. In a study of 12-17 year olds, ice hockey had a higher rate of concussions than football (29 per 10,000 compared to 27 per 10,000). We can’t get rid of every sport with a risk of brain injury. Monday Night Horseshoes is just never going to catch on in this country.
So if football isn’t going away—and fans, players, coaches, and owners likely won’t effectively deal with the problem, who will? Maybe Yalies could be of some assistance. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to outlaw the game after 19 college players were killed or paralyzed from brain or spinal cord injuries. He summoned coaches from Yale, Harvard and Princeton to implore them to stop the violent play. A short time later, our very own Walter Camp codified the rules of modern football. So perhaps we here at Yale should take up the cause again. We went for the fake punt on 4th and 22, so no idea can be too ambitious for us to attempt. Why don’t we go for it again? And then, even if we can’t win the Game, maybe we can help solve the problem.