We all love football. We love the amazing catches, the 100-yard kickoff returns, and the timely game-saving interceptions. We love those do-or-die moments when your team is facing a fourth-and-goal. We love throwing a party and having your buddies with you in front of your big-screen TV, captivated by what play is going to be run next.
But what is it that we love most about football? The bone-crushing, nerve-jarring hits that – unbeknownst to many – are ruining the game of football as we know it.
The negative effects of playing football, whether it is in high school, college, or professional, have been well-documented and transcended into a national debate after the suicides of Junior Seau and Jovan Belcher.
Seau, who retired in 2010 after a highly successful NFL career, shot himself in the chest at his home in Oceanside, California in May of last year. He left behind four kids and a plethora of unanswered questions.
Belcher’s incident is much more heinous. Last December, the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker killed his girlfriend at their home, and then drove to the Chiefs practice facility where he shot himself in the head in front of his coaches.
Like many others, you are probably asking, “why?”
Both Seau and Belcher suffered from a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease caused by multiple hits to the head. The symptoms of CTE include irritability, impulsivity, aggression, depression, short-term memory loss and heightened chance of suicide. Perhaps the worst part of it is, CTE can only be discovered via an autopsy after death, so current players have no clue whether or not they have the disease. Last year, Boston University did a study of 35 brains of deceased former NFL players with histories of head trauma, and alarmingly found that CTE was present in all but one of them.
The cases of Seau and Belcher are only a few in hundreds of examples of a successful NFL career ending into tragedy.
Which begs the key question of this article: if football is being portrayed as such a violent game that new evidence suggests can essentially ruin a person’s life, should our youth –specifically high school students – be encouraged to play the sport?
Last year, 3 million kids aged 6-14 played some kind of organized youth tackle football, and after age 14, football is offered by most high schools across the country.
In his book Concussions and Our Kids, Dr. Robert Cantu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at the Boston University School of Medicine, makes the case that kids should not be allowed to play tackle football until age 14. He reasons that kids are not miniature adults. Although by age 4, the size of a child’s head is 90 percent of adult size, their necks are much weaker. Therefore, a jarring hit will likely cause more damage – both short term and long term – to the child because it is more difficult to keep the head steady and the brain is jerked around the skull with greater force. Instead, Cantu suggests that kids use flag football as an alternative until they reach 14 years of age.
However, just because one has turned 14 doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences involved to playing football. Even Cantu himself admits that 14 is simply an “arbitrary” number.
At the high school level, such consequences can be dire. Although teenagers are unlikely to suffer from a disease as traumatic as CTE, they are still exposed to something that can lead to CTE: concussions.
It’s rather simple logic – concussions are caused by repeated hits to the head, and if one experiences a recurrent amount of concussions, he could be possibly suffering from CTE (but again, we never know until he’s dead).
While any football player of any age is exposed to concussions, the greatest risk undoubtedly lies at the high school level. Grantland, an affiliate of ESPN, recently released three rather disturbing statistics. In 2002, neurologists concluded that high school football players who suffered three or more concussions were nearly ten times more likely to display abnormal responses to head injury, such as loss of consciousness or amnesia. A separate study published in 2004 showed that football players with multiple concussions were 7.7 times more likely to experience a major drop in memory performance. Finally, perhaps the most alarming finding is that when compared with similar students without a history of concussions, high school athletes with two or more brain injuries demonstrate statistically significant lower grade-point averages.
While this is not intended to scare anyone in high school that is currently playing football, it raises a very valid point: as more and more damming evidence comes out proving the violent and destructive effects of football, what is going to happen to the sport in the future?
Call me crazy, but football will cease to exist in 15-20 years, dying a gradual and slow death. It seems outrageous right now because football is undeniably the most popular sport in America, but just think about it.
With all the great minds we have doing research and finding new information on the effects of playing football, parents will eventually come to realize that it is way too risky to allow their kids to participate in it, instead turning to less physical sports such as basketball or baseball. In turn, principals and athletic directors of high schools and colleges will become convinced and pull the plug on the football program entirely, citing how harmful it can be to our youth and future leaders.
As they like to say, “cut off the head and the body will die.” Once football is extinguished from the high school and collegiate levels, the NFL will have nowhere to go in order to find players, and the sport will disintegrate. Obviously, this is not imminent, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. As far-fetched as it may sound, in 15-20 years, we may actually be doing something else on Sundays instead of sitting on our couch watching football.