As the NFL gears up for Super Bowl 49 on Sunday, a growing debate over head injuries threatens the future of the sport. Professional athletes have taken notice and weighed in on the issue. Basketball superstar Lebron James has stated that because of health risks he wouldn’t allow his sons to play football. NFL Hall-of-Famer and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman told Bryant Gumbel, “I think that we’re at a real crossroads, as it relates to the grassroots of our sport, because if I had a 10-year-old boy, I don’t know that I’d be real inclined to encourage him to go play football, in light of what we are learning from head injury.”
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in individuals with a history of concussions and other head injuries. Treating CTE is problematic because it can only be accurately diagnosed once an individual has already deceased. Typical symptoms – memory loss, depression, anxiety, and aggression – often don’t show up for years after head injuries were sustained. There is no cure or treatment for CTE itself, only treatment for symptoms.
For decades, CTE had been thought to afflict only those who participated in boxing. Today, CTE has been diagnosed in individuals who participated in a number of contact sports, including professional football. In a recent study, researchers set out looking for evidence of CTE in the brains of deceased former NFL players and found it – 76 of the 79 brains examined showed signs of CTE.
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is the leading cause of death and disability in children and adolescents. TBI prompts a range of disabilities including physical, cognitive, and emotional impairments and is a major precursor to CTE. In a landmark study conducted by the CDC, researchers looked at TBI in children and adolescents from 2001 to 2009. The study found that football produced more TBI and emergency department visits than any other high school sport. Perhaps most alarming, overall reports of TBI skyrocketed during the study period; from 2001 to 2009 incidents of TBI increased by 62 percent, from 153,375 to 248,418. During an especially horrific week last year spanning late September through early October, three teenage high school football players, Tom Cutinella, Demario Harris Jr., and Isaiah Langston, died from head injuries sustained in games.
Rising rates of TBI in adolescents and the sudden deaths of three high school athletes has done little to influence policy surrounding head injuries nationally. However, one New York politician is looking to pass a bill that prohibits children under the age of 14 from playing organized football. Assemblyman Michael Benedetto of the 82nd Assembly District in the Bronx sponsored the bill. The bill was originally intended to bar children aged 11 and younger from playing tackle football but has since been amended to include children up to 14 years old. If passed, the law would impact the entire state of New York and be the first of its kind in the country.
Making it illegal for children to play tackle football seems at best politically unfeasible and at worst significant government overreach. Aikman has suggested the NFL transition back to leather helmets as a possible remedy to prevent head injuries. NFL players, both on offensive and defensive sides, often use their helmets to initiate contact with an opposing player. Aikman argues that if NFL players go without protective headgear they would be far less likely to make their heads vulnerable to injury during play. However, since children are often more reckless with their bodies than adults, perhaps this would not be an appropriate solution to prevent youth head injuries.
President Obama has called for more studies on head injuries related to football, and in an interview in the January 2014 issue of The New Yorker he flatly stated, “I would not let my son play pro football.” The President also likened playing football to smoking cigarettes. It’s possible football will go the way of cigarette smoking. Participation in football for children and adolescents has already begun to wane. Pop Warner, the largest youth football program in the country, announced a 9.5 percent drop in participation from 2010 to 2012, with their organization’s chief medical officer citing head injuries as the greatest cause for the decline.
With increasing TBI in children and incredible rates of CTE in retired pro players, perhaps it’s time to seriously consider a future without football.
Luke Melone is a Master’s of Public Administration candidate specializing in Health Policy & Management. His areas of interest include domestic and international health policy analysis. Prior to attending NYU Wagner he received his B.S. in Health Services Administration from the University of Central Florida.