Another football season is upon us. It is time for the National Football League (NFL), college and university officials, and even high schools to seriously address the safety, or lack thereof, of playing football. As the season progresses, the chance of injury increases. It is not an exaggeration to say that there is a national public health crisis of concussions in sports – estimated to total four million annually, not including the possibility that tens of millions more “sub-concussive” head blows contribute to youth mental deterioration. John Madden, former college and NFL coach, and commentator remarked, "I’ve always said that any player that plays one regular season NFL game — his body will never be the same the rest of his life."
A pilot study at UCLA performed brain scans that revealed images of the protein that causes football-related brain damage — the first time researchers have identified signs of the crippling disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, in living players. Dozens of former players — including 34 who played in the NFL — have been diagnosed with CTE, a neurodegenerative disease linked to dementia, memory loss and depression. The disease, which researchers say is triggered by repeated head trauma, can be confirmed only by examining the brain after death.
In the 2012-13 season, 160 players went down with a head injury.
The late Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster was the first NFL player diagnosed with CTE. CTE was also discovered in former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012, and in former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in 2011.
Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback for the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, has suffered two concussions already in his young career, and Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has suffered four concussions so far.
In addition, players suffer other serious injuries each year. For example, the 2013-14 regular season hasn't even started and over ninety players are already injured, some out for the season. These injuries include broken bones, hamstrings, Achilles tendon injuries, dislocated/fractured hips, and torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)
I will always remember the sight of Jim Otto, former center for the Oakland Raiders, on television. Otto completed 308 consecutive games, punishing his body, resulting in nearly 40 surgeries, including 28 knee operations (nine of them during his playing career alone) and multiple joint replacements. His joints are riddled with arthritis, and he has debilitating back and neck problems. He had his right leg amputated in 2007. He suffered numerous concussions. Admittedly, Otto took "playing with or through pain" to an absurd level. But should the NFL or the Oakland Raiders or their physicians have allowed Otto to abuse his body for the sake of the game? Otto claims it was all worth it to be one of the gladiators to satisfy the blood thirst of American couch potatoes.
More than 4,000 lawsuits have been filed by former players against the NFL and equipment makers Riddell and Easton, alleging that the league hid known concussion risks, causing high rates of dementia, depression, and even suicide. If successful, the lawsuits could be worth $1 billion or more. At some point, however, current and future players must assume some of the risk of injuries. They now know or should know that football is a dangerous sport, leading to possible injury or even death. Yet, the prospect of a rich contract too often trumps concern for health and safety considering that he average salary by position ranges from $1.98 million for quarterbacks to $863,000 for tight ends. Drew Brees, the highest paid player, makes total earnings of $51 million, which includes a salary of $40 million plus endorsements of $11 million
Will football be banned because of the unreasonable risk of serious injury to players? Absolutely not. Why, because there is too much money involved. According to Forbes. In 2011, the average NFL football team was worth $1.04 billion. During the 2010 season the average average revenues for the 32 teams was $261 million or $30.6 per team.
A redesign of equipment, especially helmets, may help, but football by its very nature is violent. When 200 or even 300 pound players crash into other players, the danger of serious injury is predictably going to be high no matter what the equipment players wear.
Can football be played at an acceptable safety level? And what is an acceptable safety level? Until these questions are answered, I suggest, with apologies to Willie Nelson, "Mammas don't let your babies grow up to be football players."