Illustration by Gemma Fa-Kaji
The jury has spoken, and the verdict is clear. Football, is extremely dangerous. More and more studies are being released, and each one reveals more evidence that football is very risky for players’ health, particularly their brains. Aaron Hernandez, a former star NFL player convicted of murder in the first degree at the young age of 26, committed suicide in April. Just recently, he was found to have had a severe case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that is very common in retired football players. CTE leads to memory loss, confusion, dementia, depression, impulse control problems, and aggression. A recent study determined that playing football before the age of twelve leads to cognitive and behavioral problems later in life. The case has been building for a while, now people are beginning to understand the full range of the physical and mental effects of football. Clearly, playing football is extremely dangerous for the brain and the body.
You would expect that the NFL would deny accusations that participating in football can lead to health problems. But, the evidence is so overwhelming they can’t take that approach. The league’s top health and safety official recognized that there are connections between football and CTE. The NFL is even advocating for young kids not to play the sport in its pure form (tackling, with pads). This declaration may be due to the fact that Dr. Ann McKee examined 111 brains of former NFL players and found 110 of them to have CTE. While many brain diseases are connected to repeated concussions and individual traumatic incidents, CTE is different. CTE comes from repeated hits to the head that are not necessarily severe. Aaron Hernandez’s brain had levels of CTE more typical for a much older man than a 26 year old. Whether or not this would have been a useful claim for his murder trial is unclear, but it certainly could have been a reason for his declining off-field behavior.
One of the more disconcerting studies regarding football is about its effects on young people. The study by Boston University showed that football players who played before the age of twelve were three times as likely to have depression and twice as likely to have “behavioral regulation, apathy, and executive function issues.” Many youth football leagues have responded to this evidence by changing the format of football games to make for less contact, or simply limiting the amount of days in which contact occurs.
As if these studies weren’t enough, in a college football game played in Wichita Falls, Texas earlier this month, a player died after a game. Tragically, Robert Grays, a nineteen year old playing in his second year at Midwestern College, passed away three days after he was injured making a tackle. Scarily, what happened to Grays is not an isolated incident. Every year in the US, twelve college or high-school football players die. No matter how fun a sport is, it is never worth dying for. This alarming statistic, begins to question the validity of playing the sport at all.
Next time you turn on the television for Sunday Night Football, remember that there is a high likelihood that most of the players will have brain trauma later in life. However, we do not have to accept this disturbing reality and put players at risk. The NFL, NCAA, and all football leagues, must start aggressively putting in safety measures to ensure the long term success of the sport. Implementing policies such as making players sit out a game after a concussion, changing kickoffs, having independent doctors present at every game, and eliminating the face mask. The NFL need not look further than their counterparts in youth soccer to see a model of change. In 2016, following a lawsuit that originated in California, US soccer implemented a policy that prevented children under the age of twelve from doing headers. Although it is too early to examine the influence of this policy on concussion statistics, it is hard to imagine that this modification will do more harm than good. When it comes to football, all of these slight changes would change the game, and would result in a safer sport. At the end of day, the players should be able to play and love the game without fearing for their health.