a new $1.4 billion stadium, the most expensive ever, until the New York Giants open their
$1.6 billion stadium in a few months. College football budgets eat up so much money, many
minor sports with more participants have to be dropped for lack of funding. Football is
played on the high school, Pop Warner, and Pee Wee levels as well. Whether the athlete
is 10, 20, 30, or 40, football is designed to be a collision sport and a new study says it is
doing some real harm.
A new study commissioned by the NFL, and conducted by the University of
Michigan, found Alzheimer's disease and other memory-related diseases are diagnosed
in former players at a rate 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30-49. The study also
found former NFL players had higher rates of kidney problems and arthritis than did
the regular population.
When I was growing up, one of the most popular 49ers was Charlie Krueger.
He was a behemoth of a man who played for many years. In Oakland, Jim Otto was
the center for the Raiders. Both men ended their careers with knees in such bad shape
that just getting out of bed was a major accomplishment each morning. Yet, they may
be the lucky ones. Steve Young had to quit football because he could not afford one more
concussion. One more bad hit could prove fatal. He is not unique. Just last week, Florida
quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow was knocked out of the game with
a severe concussion and yet there is talk of him playing next week.
One can argue professional athletes choose to play and know the risks. College
athletes are adults and they too weigh the risks involved in playing such a violent sport
and make a choice. However, football is played at much younger levels where those
playing are doing so for reasons which span a spectrum from genuine enjoyment to peer
and parental pressure. The child and adolescent brains are not fully formed. What impact
can all those collisions and concussions and injuries have on them is a question parents
and pediatricians and team officials need to take seriously.
The NFL continues to downplay the seriousness of the findings. They claim
plenty of people get Alzheimer's disease and dementia who never picked up a football;
and plenty of former players have never been diagnosed with either problem. They
understand the implications if American parents finally begin to understand the minefield
of physical infirmities they are exposing their children to when they push, pressure, or
allow participation in this sport.
Children and teenagers who play football are more often than not coached by
volunteers or parents or teachers who played the sport at one time. While most coaches
know not to teach a player to drop the head when tackling and rules are designed to limit
helmet-on-helmet contact, both still happen on a frequent basis. It is rare to have a doctor
on the sidelines and minor concussions are treated with observation and the player is
allowed back fairly quickly. Anyone who has seen Muhammad Ali can see the effect of
numerous blows to the head even if the individual blows are not of significant impact.
This is not the first study to connect football to cognitive problems. A study by
the team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers found similar results four years ago. The
University of North Carolina published papers from 2005 to 2007; and found a connection
between NFL football and depression, dementia, and other impairment. Yet, the NFL
continues to deny there is any connection.
How many concussions or blows to the head are too many? If you only play
through high school, does your risk still increase? When young children play Pop Warner
and Pee Wee football, with still-forming brains; what is the effect of blows to the head?
Are there studies to answer any of these questions? No. Are parents aware of any of
these dangers? Some are and some aren't; but no parents have been given this new
information, and yet many encourage their children to play.
I coached football at a fairly high level in high school. I coached the offensive
and defensive lines and coached some young men weighing over 260 pounds who were
fast and powerful. They were put through an extensive physical pounding in each game
and some suffered concussions and all experienced numerous blows to the head. None
ever suffered any serious injuries; but I wonder now about when they reach their fifties
and sixties if any of that will come back to haunt them. I wish someone would institute
a study of that population.
What happens on the pro level directly influences every other level of play.
When the pros started to trash talk, it didn't take long to see the same kinds of exchanges
in high school or even grammar school games. Over 30% of all NFL players are over
300 pounds. This supersizing of players is now a trend in college and high school. The
result is an increase in weight-related problems from heart disease to diabetes among
players who put on the weight to play, but don't make college or NFL squads.
There have to be strict rules. A player who experiences a concussion should
automatically be prohibited from playing for several weeks and have to pass a battery
of tests before being allowed to play again. The younger the player, the longer the
prohibition. Watch and see when Florida's Tebow is back playing and decide for yourself
if they put his health at risk in any way.
I love football. I love to watch high school football because most kids will never
play in college or the pros and play for pure joy and to represent their school. However,
I won't be able to watch another game on any level or watch someone helped off the field
because of a head injury and not wonder what the long-term consequences will be for him.
If your child comes to you and wants to play football, how will you answer and what
protections will you demand? What do you think? I welcome your comments and
rebuttals. Please send them to email@example.com