In the final game of the 2009-10 National Football League season, the New Orleans Saints captured their first-ever Super Bowl victory by defeating the Indianapolis Colts. Now the offseason has officially begun—and it could be the most important one in the history of the NFL.
That’s because more and more information is coming to light on the dangers of football. In just the latest finding, a Time feature describes research demonstrating that the brains of former NFL players show definitive signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. All 12 brains analyzed by Boston University neuroscientist Ann McKee reveal a protein called tau, a tell-tale sign of CTE, a condition which causes memory loss, depression and other mental troubles during middle age.
No amount of research can change the fact that football is—and will remain—a high-contact sport. A lineman’s job is to use his head, neck, shoulders and whatever else he can to push the defender backwards. A running back often lowers his head to try to gain an extra yard or two. A safety is trying to punish an unsuspecting wide receiver running across the middle of the field.
The Time article includes some suggestions for reducing the violence of the game. Some, such as eliminating the three-point stance for linemen, are better than others, like the idea that a rule-breaking player should have to sit out, hockey-style, for a period of time.
The NFL has not been completely silent on the issue in the past few years, but mostly those actions have been baby steps—it has banned “horse collar” tackles and vicious blows to “defenseless” receivers. And while “helmet-to-helmet” hits draw a penalty flag, these hits go uncalled far too often. Stricter enforcement of these blows—both out in the open field and at the line of scrimmage—would be a good start.
The league has also passed a new rule that any player diagnosed with a concussion is not allowed to return to the field for the rest of the game, something that should have been obvious all along. But in a sport famous for players toughing it out, I’m worried that they will now be even more hesitant to be checked out by a doctor for fear of revealing a head injury.
While it’s certainly a pessimistic view, I think the only way for the sport of football to undergo serious change is for the players to be scared. Current athletes need to hear stories about players whose lives have essentially been ruined by CTE. Media outlets need to talk about the dangers of a violent tackle, not applaud the fearless, physical play. It’s only if the athletes themselves realize the dangers of football that the sport can change for the better.
And we can only hope that any steps the NFL takes to combat this problem will have a trickle-down effect, because the more than three million kids who play youth football and 1.2 million high-school players are also at risk, probably a much greater risk. In a recent Dana briefing paper on young athletes and concussions, neurosurgeon Robert Cantu says that “the developing brain may indeed be more prone to injury than an adult, mature brain because neurons are growing faster and connections are still being made. There is not the redundancy that there is in an adult brain.”