So, Whaddya Think?
Should We Let Children Play Tackle Football?
David Figurski and Donna O’Donnell Figurski
Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian pathologist who discovered the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) by his study of the brain of Hall-of-Fame center Mike Webster, is making news again with an Op-Ed published in The New York Times. Dr. Omalu’s essay is entitled Don’t Let Kids Play Football. He says that our society has laws forbidding the sale of tobacco and alcohol to minors. There is legislation that mandates bicycle helmets for children. Why not protect children’s brains by prohibiting children from playing American-style tackle football? Dr. Omalu writes in his essay, “The risk of permanent impairment is heightened by the fact that the brain, unlike most other organs, does not have the capacity to cure itself ….”
(Dr. Omalu’s CTE-discovery story and its impact on American football is told in the much-anticipated movie, Concussion, which will be in theaters on Christmas Day. Dr. Omalu is played by actor Will Smith. As grippingly shown in the Frontline documentary, League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, which is online and free, the National Football League – NFL – immediately attacked Dr. Omalu and tried to get him to retract the published paper.)
There is strong evidence that not only concussions, but also the large number of sub-concussive hits common to players of American football can lead to CTE, whose symptoms may appear as early as in the late teens. The symptoms of CTE include memory loss, reduced intelligence, depression, aggressive behavior, dementia, and suicidal thoughts. Both a college football player and a young professional player committed suicide, and they were found to have CTE. A high-school football player committed suicide. CTE has also been detected in the brains of players of high-school football.
The NFL is concerned with the growing awareness of brain injuries in players of American football. If players, their families, fans, coaches, and/or parents think that CTE is common among players, a seemingly sacrosanct part of American culture and a multibillion-dollar industry would be put into jeopardy.
To get in front of the concussion issue, the NFL has aggressively promoted its image as a forward-thinking and safety-conscious league. The NFL has donated large sums of money for concussion research. The league has changed the rules of the game to discourage a player from using his helmet to make tackle or to prevent a tackle. It has established a “concussion protocol” to keep a concussed player from practice and/or games until he has been approved to return to play. The NFL has concussion-spotters present at every game and this year has empowered them to stop a game. (However, that protocol failed shamefully and dramatically in the recent instance of quarterback Case Keenum near the end of a tie game.) The rule changes are good progress, but can the NFL actually prevent brain injuries and save the game?
Current and former players have been affected by the brain-injury issue. Some players have had to retire early and fear imminent brain disease. A rookie linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers quit after one year of a four-year contract. (He is returning the signing bonus for the remaining three years.) He said that playing professional football, with all its potential for wealth, is not worth the risk of brain injury. Legendary former quarterback Joe Namath has said that, if he knew then what he knows now, he wouldn’t have played. Keith McCants, former NFL linebacker said, “We were paid to give concussions. If we knew that we were killing people, I would have never put on the jersey.”
The brains of several former players, including Hall-of-Fame linebacker
Junior Seau and four-time-Pro-Bowl safety Dave Duerson – both of whom committed suicide, were found to have CTE.
Boston University’s CTE Center has found CTE in 88 of 92 (1, 2) autopsied brains of former NFL players. (Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University says that this is a ridiculously high rate even for a sample of brains in which the individuals showed some signs of brain disease. DOF has written about a simple fix for the claim of bias. In the meantime, there was a report that was consistent with Dr. McKee’s fear that CTE is common among football players. Frank Gifford, Hall-of-Fame running back, apparently died of natural causes, but his brain showed CTE.)
Should children play American football with all that is known? Obviously there is much more to be learned, but should society wait to protect the children? Children trust their parents and coaches. Dr. Omalu only wants society to protect the brains of young children until those children are able to understand the risks to the brain from playing football and to make their own decision of whether or not to play. Boston University’s Dr. Robert Cantu said that a child’s brain is developing until age 14. Should children be subjecting their developing brains to high impact hits? One study showed that sometimes the force of a young child’s hit can reach that of a college football player.
One argument for safety in American football is that the equipment, especially the helmet, is much improved. The helmet does a very good job of protecting the skull, but does nothing to protect the brain. There is no helmet that can prevent a concussion.
As you might imagine, Dr. Omalu’s position is highly unpopular. Danny Kanell, former NFL quarterback and now ESPN commentator, claims that Dr. Omalu is waging a “War on Football.” Many fans and parents agree with Kanell because they believe that CTE is not common among football players. (DOF has written how this issue can be resolved simply. Dr. Omalu is an author on a paper reporting the accurate detection of CTE in a living person using a special PET – positron emission tomography – scan. The NFL needs to have all of its players scanned.) If Dr. Omalu’s suggestion about not letting kids play tackle football were adopted, one effect would be immediately obvious. The NFL would see its pool of young players dry up, so the talent we now see in the NFL would no longer be seen.
It is unlikely that Dr. Omalu’s suggestion would ever come true. But he has the stature to get people talking, and the discussion has already changed. More people are becoming aware of the danger to the brain of playing tackle football. The NFL is concerned with the movie Concussion because it will increase society’s awareness of the danger. (In an article about an early showing of Concussion to former players and their families, the Huffington Post writes “… the wife of former tight end Taz Anderson, said the movie made her question whether her grandchild should continue to play the sport.”) Recently Bob Costas, a renowned sports commentator, said that American football is based on violence. The league has no way of fixing its problem with head trauma.
If you’ve ever seen young children playing tackle football, you will realize that society must do something to protect its children.
So, Whaddya Think?
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