Dave Dureson had it all. He had a super bowl ring and a world's championship. He had been an All-Pro defensive back for the world champion Chicago Bears and he had made a lot of money. When he killed himself he left a note begging his family to donate his brain to the NFL's Brain Bank. From reports and interviews with family and friends, Dureson was worried he was experiencing the early onset of Alzheimers or some other memory loss disease and couldn't imagine what the future might hold for him. While we don’t know the autopsy results on his brain, it is time to admit football needs to be banned for anyone under the age of 21.
The University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research issued a report claiming NFL players are 19 times more likely to develop Alzheimers or other brain encephalopathies. Additional research is showing a history of concussions can make it harder to recover from each subsequent incident and the cumulative effect can change the nature of a human brain. Most disturbing, is the belief, among some researchers, brain "bumps" not rising to the level of a concussive event, can also eventually result in brain deterioration. Symptoms are showing up in younger and younger players. A freshman football player at Penn University committed suicide and upon autopsy, it was discovered he had the same traumatic encephalopathy as older NFL players' brains. His parents said he had had a concussion while playing high school football, but no other injuries to his head.
It is time to admit no one under 21 should be playing football and perhaps hockey. There is no way a minor, or a minor's parents, can give informed consent about the dangers these sports represent to the future health of the child. It is also clear, you cannot make equipment, which would mitigate some of the danger. Recently, Senator Udall of New Mexico, introduced legislation mandating helmet manufacturers update their standards and technology and produce helmets which better protect football players from head injuries. Under a voluntary program, the industry had not changed its standards since 1973. Senator Udall’s idea will not change the danger because the whole purpose of better equipment is so players can hit each other even harder. Former San Francisco Forty Niner Ronnie Lott is quoted as saying, "...if they took away half my padding, they would take away half my power." The better and sturdier the equipment, the harder the hits.
I coached high school football at a fairly high level. We were undefeated and the #1 team in California one year. Simple blocking and tackling drills resulted in plenty of head contact. We practiced or played six days a week. Many of these young men had played Pop Warner or Pee Wee football prior to entering high school. They had been banging their heads for years and as of today, the research suggests even simple head trauma adds up. If you knew playing football might lead to early onset of Alzheimers or other memory diseases, would you let your child play? The frightening thing is we don’t know enough, so how do you give informed consent? How do you evaluate the dangers to your child? What do you do if you are wrong?
In the last couple of weeks, the NFL owners approved a rule change moving the kickoff to the 35-yard line. It will insure more kickoffs into the end zone resulting in fewer kickoff returns. Kickoff returns produce some of the most violent collisions in the game. (Kickoff returns are also one of the most exciting plays in the game especially if returned for a touchdown) This is an attempt by the owners to reduce opportunities for concussions and other injuries. Last year the NFL handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for illegal hits to the head. All 32 teams will now use the same regulations to evaluate concussions and a player may not return to action without a doctor signing off on his health. All of this is closing the door after the horse is already gone. The proof of how the NFL owners really feel about the issue of player's health is seen in a proposal they have made to add two more games to the regular season. (a total of 18). They have also refused a demand by the players association for lifetime health insurance benefits for NFL players. Hockey faces some of the same questions and NHL owners have refused to adopt European rules which prohibit fighting and blows to the head out of fear Americans will stop going to the games if the threat of violence is not present.
It is no accident football players are referred to as warriors and gladiators. It is no accident a society as violent as America loves football. It is no accident the length of the average pro football career is 3 years and it's no accident fans have been screaming about how the game is being ruined by punishing players for illegal hits to the head. However, football as currently played, has to be banned for anyone under 21.
It is impossible to produce a helmet, which will truly protect the brain. It is impossible to play football without consistently butting heads with an opponent or with teammates in practice. How many times has the brain experienced trauma in a young man who started playing football when he was 9 or 10 years old? No one knows how many bumps a brain can take before damage is done. Dave Dureson was so scared of what the future entailed, and aware of what his past actions had involved, he killed himself rather then go through the ordeal of losing his mind, health or both. What parent could ever let their child face such a Hobson's Choice some day in the future?
My son played football for 2 years in high school. Knowing what I know now, I would not have let him participate despite his protestations. I can only hope the damage was minimal. The nightmare is not knowing.