CRAWFORD | Is there really a 'war on football?'
WDRB's Eric Crawford takes a look at roots of the debate about football safety, in light of the most recent study on brain injury among football players.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Is there a war on football?
This is the question that has been flying end-over-end through my own neurologic centers after a study released last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a study based on examinations on the brains of 202 deceased football players by Boston based doctors.
The headlines focused on brains – obtained through donations to a brain bank set up by the VA Boston Healthcare System, Boston University School of Medicine and the Concussion Legacy Foundation – which were donated from NFL players. By now, you know the stats well. Of 111 brains NFL players donated, 110 showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease that can cause dementia, memory loss, confusion and depression.
Of the 202 players overall, 177 were found to have suffered some form of CTE. A caveat, right away – the brains donated in this program were only from people who suspected they had suffered neuropathologic damage. As a result, the numbers in this report aren’t all that surprising. Publishers of this study were clear about this flaw, as were most media reporting on it.
However, the incidence of CTE found among NFL players continues a trend in the research, which shows that the longer you play football, the more severe brain damage you risk.
That, of course, is just common sense. It’s a game with hundreds of little hits, in addition to the big ones that draw reactions and, these days, flags.
The problem with the discussion of this whole topic is that politics is getting involved. And when politics gets involved, you can pretty much count on most of the things you hear and read about a subject being warped. We used to look at a set of facts and try to figure out reasonable courses of action. Now we look at a set of facts and start spinning toward the outcome we want. And, as political arguments seem to go, each side is usually about half right.
So I hear from one camp that masculinity is under attack in this country, and that these revelations about football are just another way of trying to weaken the American male. Danny Kanell of ESPN Tweeted in 2015, “The war on football is real,” and “Liberal media loves it.” He says that research dollars and cultural dislike of the game on the part of the left are driving stacked studies that magnify its dangers.
Kanell, of course, is right on those counts. If you don’t think the American male is under attack, watch any situation comedy. Look at how parents (mostly dads) are depicted in any television show. And, yes, as Kanell often points out, this latest study, and many others, are, to use a politically charged term, “rigged,” because CTE can only be confirmed after death, and many of the brains studied come from people who suspected they suffered from it, and were, in fact, correct.
I’ll go Kanell one step further, and point out that most (though not all) of the CTE brains studied to this point were from players who played the game before more stringent safety measures were enacted at all levels. It’s possible the game has already taken meaningful steps to reduce the problem, and it continues to take more steps, especially at the youth levels. We won’t know until there are studies of players in the game currently.
More than most, I’m probably sympathetic to Kanell’s points, political and otherwise, even if I toil daily, like him, in the “liberal media.”
But it’s also important that we not let political points carry the day – in most discussions.
Football is dangerous. And playing it recklessly or without heed for its dangers doesn’t make you more of a man, it makes you stupid. (And the two, despite current theory, are not synonymous.)
There were folks who could argue at one time, persuasively, that the scientific link between smoking and lung cancer was shaky. There wasn’t enough data. They hadn’t studied all the brands. It was a war on a way of life. “They’re trying to take the fun out of life.” They were right. Until they weren’t.
Today, if you choose to smoke, you know the dangers.
The same is true for football. Did you know that, like packs of cigarettes, football helmets carry warning labels? Take a minute and read the warning on the helmets:
WARNING: NO HELMET CAN PREVENT SERIOUS HEAD OR NECK INJURIES… Contact in football may result in CONCUSSION BRAIN INJURY which no helmet can prevent. Symptoms include: loss of consciousness or memory, dizziness, headache, nausea, or confusion. If you have symptoms, immediately stop playing and report them to your coach, trainer, and parents. Do not return to a game or practice until all symptoms are gone and you have received MEDICAL CLEARANCE. Ignoring this warning may lead to another and more serious or fatal brain injury. (Riddell)
Since 2003, Schutt sports has added to its warning labels: “No helmet system can protect you from serious brain and/or neck injuries including paralysis or death. To avoid these risks, do not engage in the sport of football.”
There is an inherent risk in just about everything. In football, that risk to life, and quality of life, is greater. It’s not that other sports don’t carry their own risks. They do. But football is more monolithic. And it’s precisely because football is so big that it deserves heightened attention. There’s no getting around it. The science is just catching up to what we already know, and have observed anecdotally, have mourned with each new suicide of a former player.
Football. Is. Dangerous.
It doesn’t make you less of a man to face up to that. It also doesn’t mean that those of us who point it out are against football or working to abolish it. To take the position that football needs to continue to enact more effective safety measures doesn’t make us left-wing zealots or mean that we’re trying to undermine manhood in the United States. Maybe some have those ends. Many do not.
I do not. I grapple with this because I suppose I’m part of this football industrial complex. My livelihood is, at least in part, possible because of this country’s love affair with the game, this violent, complex, sometimes stupid game. (I still don’t like the idea of “extra” points or letting a team kick a field goal when it “almost” reaches the goal of scoring a touchdown. But even its inflated scoring system is quintessentially American.)
I have known hundreds of football players. And when they cease to be numbers, or just robots wearing a team’s jersey you like, and begin to be actual people with lives and families beyond the game, you start to care a little less about the scoreboard and a little more about these guys being able to walk when they get into their forties.
There’s a ton we don’t know about how all this works. Whether it’s a cumulative effect over time, or whether significant damage can be done at youth levels. We don’t know if the effects of CTE are enhanced with each hit you take beyond a certain age. Everything is being studied. It should be.
I don’t know what the long-term future of football is. The game is so ingrained in American culture that I don’t see it going away in my lifetime. But already, parents are holding their kids out of the sport over safety concerns. It won’t take long, if that trend continues, for the game to show signs of decline. In less than a decade, participation in tackle football by boys aged 6 to 12 has fallen 20 percent.
USA Football, the national governing body of amateur football, responded in January of this year by introducing an altered version of youth football with dramatic changes – reducing the size of teams, the size of the field, eliminating kickoffs and punts and mandating that players begin each play in a crouching position rather than a three-point stance.
“This is the future of the game,” Scott Hallenbeck, the group’s executive director, said in an interview with The New York Times.
Mark Murphy, president of the Green Bay Packers, and a member of the board that proposed the changes, was just as direct: “The issue is participation has dropped, and there’s concern among parents about when is the right age to start playing tackle, if at all. There are, legitimately, concerns among parents about allowing their kids to play tackle football at a young age, so they can look at this and say they’ll be more comfortable that it is a safer alternative.”
If the game is to be saved, it lies in efforts like these, to introduce kids to the game in a safer way, until they are of age to understand what those warnings on the helmets really mean.
At the highest levels of the game, research abounds into how to create safer equipment, how to change the game to further promote player safety. Some even propose that fewer pads and minimal helmets – or even no helmets at all – would be safer than the present way of doing things. Some have proposed just practicing without helmets. Everything, at this point, is on the table.
Nobody’s “trying to take the fun out of the game.” The effort is to try to take dementia, depression and premature death out of the game. This doesn’t represent a threat to the American way of life. It’s not a threat to American manhood or masculinity. It’s reacting to a problem that is real, not a political power play, even if some might be using the movement to make football safer in that way, and others are reacting to those people.
My warning label on a lot of topics: Don’t let politics invade and poison you against what the facts plainly tell you.
Football is dangerous, and in the past, has been unnecessarily and recklessly dangerous. In fact, it has weathered similar threats before. At the turn of the 20th century, major reforms were needed. In 1904, mostly at the prep school level, there were 18 player deaths and 159 serious injuries, including paralysis. Newspaper editorials called for an outright ban. One compared football to the “gladiatorial combats in the arena in ancient Rome.” After another bloody season in 1905, several colleges, including Columbia, Duke and Northwestern, dropped football, and others threatened to. President Theodore Roosevelt got involved.
We’ve never had a greater “man’s man” as president than Teddy Roosevelt. He said, in 1903, “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.”
But it was Roosevelt who moved to make football safer. Out of meetings he held, the yardage to gain a first down was pegged at 10 yards. The forward pass was instituted. The neutral zone along the line of scrimmage was established. A governing body was established that eventually would become the NCAA. These are all facts of life today. Back then, some probably saw them as “taking the fun out of the game.”
The point in that historical reference is that change isn’t always an attack on the game.
Football can be played in a safer, smarter manner and still be entertaining. Its future depends on that.
Copyright 2017 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved. Reporting by The New York Times and The History Channel was consulted in the writing of this column.