Future of football and concussions
By Louis Steptoe
Football is one of the most beloved sports in the United States.
For sixty minutes, fans watch some of the fastest, strongest and smartest athletes battle it out for glory. Football is one of those sports were the training starts at a young age.
From elementary school to college, kids work tirelessly to get to draft night. But the questions are: at what cost? Is playing football worth the risk?
More and more, the answer is no. Football is a very physical sport, and one of the most prominent injuries in the sport is concussions.
A concussion is a brain injury caused by a blow to the head or a violent shaking of the head and body. Concussions may not have a severe and immediate impact on your health, but they can lead to longer-term damage.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, usually athletes. It can cause memory loss, aggression, depression and suicidal tendencies (often in athletes).
Dr. Ann Mckee, a neuropathologist, has examined the brains of 202 deceased football players. Out of the 202, 111 of them played in the NFL, and 110 of those were found to have CTE. That is the highest percentage of any sport. Unsurprisingly, 44 of the victims were linemen, the players who experience the most physical contact in the game.
Aaron Hernandez was the most recent NFL player to have been diagnosed with CTE. The former New England Patriots tight end and convicted murderer was 27 when he took his life earlier this year in his prison cell. The murder conviction that put him there was vacated after his death. An examination of his brain showed that he had a severe form of CTE. Doctors who examined the tissue said Hernandez had the most extreme case of CTE ever found in someone so young. The damage was akin to that of players who were in their 60s.
Until now, much of the focus on CTE has been on the NFL and the financial impact it may have on the league, as well as the suicides by some notable players, including Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau. But the discovery of the severity of Hernandez’s injuries and their accelerated nature raises questions about when the damage starts and whether it goes back to college, high school and pee-wee football when participants’ brains are still developing and susceptible to such injuries.
NBC sportscaster Bob Costas raised the issue earlier this month in a symposium when he talked about the damage caused by the game.
“The reality is that this game destroys people’s brains,” he said. “You cannot change the basic nature of the game. I certainly would not let, if I had an athletically gifted 12- or 13-year old son, I would not let him play football.
Costas’ comments drive to the heart of when the damage begins and when it is too young to play.
A briefing paper written in 2010 for the Dana Foundation by Jordan Grafman, Ph.D., chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives said brains do not fully mature until at least the mid-20s, “so if a concussion occurs in a still-developing brain, the trajectory of that development will presumably be affected. Even a mild head injury can certainly cause impairments and create problems in day-to-day functioning, particularly in higher cognitive functions, which are last to develop, as well as in social cognitive functions.”
Combine that with the inexperienced player, and the chances of concussions and damage from the collisions that are a normal part of football are more likely.
CDC studies show that 47% of all reported sports concussions occur during high school football, and 1 in 5 high school athletes will sustain a sports concussion during the season. Also, 33% of high school athletes who have a sports concussion report two or more in the same year. With players taking multiple blows to the head throughout the course of a season, who knows the damage that could be happening to their developing brain?
Robert Harris III, a former high school quarterback who is currently attending Bowie State, said he thinks it depends on how severe the concussions are. He has had multiple concussions in high school and described the feeling as “constant headaches. I couldn’t look at the sun, couldn’t go outside at all because the sun would give me a headache.”
Robert Harris, the young man’s father and head coach of Archbishop Carroll High School, thinks people are becoming more aware of the injuries and the risks of playing football. He believes players should be educated on concussions and CTE.
That education can’t come soon enough. The elder Harris said he had noticed differences in players’ motor skills, reactions and ability to verbalize words after just one concussion. His comments are enlightening and concerning because they offer one of the few glimpses from the sidelines of the impact of concussions at the prep level, and they indicate the damage can occur earlier and have a greater impact than simply having “your bell rung.” He is one of the few high school coaches to say publicly that he is observing damage to a player’s cognitive skills after the first concussion. The question it raises is whether that damage is temporary or longer-lasting?
So what can be done to prevent concussions, you might ask?
Of course, people argue that if the coaches teach proper tackling techniques, then injuries dealing with the head will decline, which is true, but at the same time there are still uncontrollable forces of the game. Some people are willing to take that risk, but people have to remember that football isn’t the only sport where you see a large number of concussions happening. In hockey, soccer, lacrosse, basketball, bike riding — really, any sport — concussions are possible. It's the players choice to play the sport. The best thing to do is to educate and teach the sport properly.