An examination of the state of American football and a comprehensive solution to ensure its continued life
Football is dying because our brains just can’t take it. More specifically, the brains of football players. One key thing you probably note in the title of this article is the absence of the word “professional”, and that is because I am referring to the brains of all football players and not just professionals. Current media coverage might lead you to believe that the principle injury concern in football today – the effect of repeated concussions or more specifically, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) – is one specifically concentrated in the professional ranks. This is not the case. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this issue is that it is a long term issue and not one born in the NFL or CFL. The grave nature of this problem is receiving a cascade of study and the evidence supporting football’s contribution to this illness is steadily building, but I will leave the researchers to the task of further building the scientific and medical case. Instead, I will concentrate this article on the impact of these study results on the game Americans obviously love and how that game may be changed in a way that might help it survive – along with the brains of its many participants.
A Dead Sport Walking
Why am I giving American football this fatal moniker? Because as it is structured today… it is. Concussions are a common occurrence in football, as any player at any level can tell you. In addition, neurologists have already stated once a person suffers a concussion, there is a high probability that he will sustain another. They have added that it takes less of a blow, after several concussions, to cause the same level of injury and it requires more time to recover. This we already know as fact. Consequently, the simple math says football is fundamentally a game that causes concussions.
Further, research is solidifying the link between concussion head trauma and long-term degenerative brain disease. Thus enters C.T.E. into the picture. Adding up a little more math leads to an answer that says football, a sport that includes concussions as a basic part of the game, is a breeding ground for long term brain illness. At this point it is pretty clear that we all love a sport that is very bad for its participants’ brain over a long period. When you consider that a young man just playing from the age of 8 until his senior year in high school has 10 years of sudden brain shifts caused from contact, it becomes obvious that a professional player at the age of 28 or 30 is clearly in danger of having long term problems from brain injuries.
Now ordinarily it would seem like common sense to stop doing things that hurt, but this is football. On an emotional level it is a national pastime and perhaps the most popular game in the land. On a financial level it is an engine that generates billions in revenue and supports millions of people, businesses and institutions. Given this view of the game how can I still say it is going to die? The simple answer is… mothers.
As the scientific evidence mounts, mothers will be faced with indisputable evidence that they are subjecting their babies to danger – and that is not something mothers are hardwired to do. So, even though most of the attention is being paid to the impact of this issue on the professional level, the game will actually be killed, literally, in its youth. Mothers will simply not allow their sons to play. The feeder system will be shut down. It has already started but as study results become more public even the most ardent football moms will succumb to the pressure from others who will question their motivation behind exposing their sons to clear danger.
And finally, there is a financial threat looming. Several lawsuits already exist regarding this issue. Based on the outcome of these suits, and to some extent regardless of their outcome, insurers will find it increasing difficult to provide the same level of coverage for professional teams, college teams, equipment providers and even coaches. The level of coverage required and the premium cost demanded by insurers alone can and will threaten many programs – if not the entire game.
So the dilemma becomes how to save a dangerous sport, but one that is enjoyed by everyone.
Bringing It Back From the Dead
The major problem in formulating a viable solution is that the issue is being discussed largely in a compartmentalized way. As I have stated, it is not an NFL problem… it’s a football problem. The long term effects may be more apparent at the professional level, but it is increasing evident that its genesis is at a much lower level – perhaps even in youth recreational leagues. However, this approach has largely prevented a broader discussion – and a comprehensive solution – around the issue.
Given the long term nature of the problem, and that the end of the game will probably come at its lowest level – because of lack of participation from youths – the obvious answer needs to include changes at every stage from youth recreational football to the professional ranks. The solution I am offering is such a comprehensive solution.
Since it starts with the first concussion and proceeds from there, with less volatility but increasing damage, the simple trick is to reduce the overall potential number of traumatic brain injuries experienced by a football player over his entire football life. This can be done on each level of competition through methods such as limiting the amount of full contact during practice, etc., but the real solution should focus on reducing the number of “contact football years” in a players life. But how and where should this reduction occur?
Because the greatest love of the game, the highest observance, the highest quality of play and the greatest benefit from revenue creation occurs at the college and professional levels, it makes little sense to reduce those years. And since the danger to the long term life will be presented in the form of lower youth participation, it makes most sense to reduce the contact at the youth level. Better yet, eliminate it all together. No mother wants to see their child hurt, especially from a concussion type injury, but it is far worse for a mother to see it occur with their 9 year old than with their 29 year old. So why expose the mother or the child to this? Youth contact football should be eliminated until the age of 15 or 9th grade – whichever comes first.
I understand the traditionalists and higher level coaches will decry this approach as one that will deliver to them a less prepared player, but I disagree. As it is structure currently this might be the case, but this restructuring offers the opportunity to actually do a better job of delivering the high schools and colleges a more highly skilled player.
The age group from 8 through 10 years of age should be structured as 8-man flag football. The emphasis should be on the most basic of skills and knowledge required. If you consider the current practice, we are presently introducing a new game to children – a dangerous game – which requires that they learn skills, positions, rules, formations, etc., while at the same time requires them to properly execute full contact in a violent environment. I know it is difficult for some to comprehend the concept at the youth level but the truth is the violence of the collisions for 8 and 9 year olds is the same for them as it is for grown men. And we ask them to execute proper contact with very little practice and experience. Most professionals have played for 15 years and more, yet they still sometimes execute poorly and expose themselves to head injuries. How can we expect more from an 8 year old first year player? And we ask this of them while expecting them to remember all of the other aspects of the game. It makes no sense. I propose removing the contact part of the game and direct all of the coaching and teaching to those other aspects. The competitive aspects, teamwork, physical activity, are all still present in this environment. In this way the next level of football will receive a more knowledgeable and prepared participant AND we have avoided – or cut off – those first few years of that potential first concussion.
The next level of youth football should be the 11 and 12 age groups who are advanced to an 11-man game, but again a flag game. This level should build on those fundamentals by exposing them to the 11-man game to include multiple formations on offense, the various defenses, special teams, special skills (kickoffs, punting, field goals, long snaps) and further reinforcement of the basic individual techniques required to play well. Again, without having to worry about the contact these youths can be exposed to more teaching and will absorb more.
The 13 to 14 age group should be the first key transition level. This should also be flag football but it should add – in practice – the introduction to the proper skills required for full contact. In addition, they should be required to wear a modified uniform to include padded pants, the light weight shoulder padding currently worn under shoulder pads and even a modified light weight helmet. This helmet should be something along the lines of what a lacrosse player current uses. This will begin to prepare them for the feel of the equipment and the restrictions the equipment present. Anyone who has played the game knows that it is different trying to turn your head and catch a pass with a helmet on than it is with nothing on your head. Of course these uniform changes will require some innovation but it is something I am confident equipment providers can quickly produce.
The next key transitional level should be the introduction of the tackle football game in 9th grade. All incoming freshman in high school should be required to play junior varsity football and no higher. 10th graders should be required to play junior varsity as well, except in those cases where a school cannot field a varsity team without 10th grader participation. And even in this case, varsity teams should be required to take only those 10th graders who meet a certain weight requirement. Size does matter in football. Other changes at this level should be a reduction in games played versus the varsity. For example, if a school district has a 10 game varsity schedule, the junior varsity should play no more than 7 or 8 games. Because it is their first exposure to the tackle football game, it will be taxing on them physically and as the season drags on, they will lose strength, focus,and technique – all of which might increase the probability of receiving a head injury. At the very least, it reduces the number of chances for brain injury.
11th and 12th grade level participants can continue to play the same game we see today at the high school varsity level.
At all levels of football changes are already occurring with respect to the actions that are being taken following a concussion, so that is not included as a part of this discussion. However, a continued examination of, and enhancement to those steps is clearly warranted.
The comprehensive nature of this approach cannot be limits to what occurs on the field. For it to really become an effective strategy to reducing the probability of C.T.E., leaders and adults at all levels of football, and society in general, must support it.
The professional level needs to strongly encourage it and support those organizations that follow this pattern. The NFL needs to get in front of this issue and lead the effort to change the game before it loses the ability to implement what the public will view as an honest attempt to change. Any attempt to delay, minimize are conceal the inevitable results of the scientific studies will create an environment of public mistrust that will be difficult to overcome, and worse yet, it will place the NFL in a position of having change forced on it instead of being in a position to lead and manage that change.
College programs should encourage it as well, but should also modify their off-season camps to match this structure. Coaching clinics provided by colleges should also be structured to help direct coaches at the various lower levels as to what they need and expect out of the youth and high school programs. High school programs need to place more emphasis on who they hire to coach their junior varsity teams because it will become a much more important factor in the success of their varsity programs.
On a different level, I would go as far as to suggest that State level high school football leagues, school districts, State education agencies and State legislatures should adopt rules, policies, procedures and laws that require this structure. At the very least, they should outlaw contact football below the age of 15 or 9th grade. The outlawing of tackle football by State legislatures will put everyone on the same “playing field” and will prevent any entity (e.g. private schools) from acting on their own to continue the current structure.
There is even the potential for technological ingenuity with this new structure. Flags are clearly an out dated tool and not the most effective way to play the game. An enterprising company – for example the companies that currently provide laser tag equipment – might be able to develop light weight gear that will “signal” when a ball carrier has been touched by a defender. Some companies are currently experimenting with “smart athletic wear” and it is not too far a stretch for them to expand into this area as well. If this structure is adopted broadly across the country the potential sales for such an equipment manufacturer would be substantial.
What does this accomplish?
Ultimately, concussions in football cannot be avoided. Many equipment manufacturers have tried to create products to prevent it, but the evidence in this area is clear – nothing can prevent the sudden impact that causes the brain from shifting. Since those types of sudden impacts are inherent to the game, it can’t be eliminated. But what we can do is reduce the frequency of this occurrence – and the long term effect in the form of C.T.E. and other degenerative brain diseases – by cutting years off of a football player’s exposure to this type of contact.
If football is to be saved, I believe this level of modification to the entire lifecycle of a player’s career must be made. It doesn’t matter whether the career is just youth level or a 20 year professional career, we must do everything we can to reduce the amount of contact that leads to long term brain injury. By taking “full contact” years off of the front end of a football players career the number of potential concussions will be reduced – and by extension the potential for long term brain injury. If this threat is substantially reduced we all will be able to continue to enjoy the sport we love.
As the author of this article I participated in football beginning at age 8, through 4 years of college football. This included youth recreation league, junior high school, high school (including several playoff seasons and a 14 game state championship season), and 4 letterman years in college – two as a starter. During that time I have experienced at least one concussion incident in each year of football – a few requiring removal from a game and several during practices. I also witnessed hundreds of concussions experienced by fellow players during that time period. Almost none of these concussions received anything more than sideline attention and very few even received examination beyond the football training staff. I am not aware of any concussions that received follow on neurological examination. My fellow players, who played on every level from recreational youth leagues to professional football, are walking around today with the undiagnosed and untreated results of those many concussions. We may never know the impact of those concussions on their lives, but we can improve the game we all love so that the next generation can play it, enjoy it, and benefit from it without suffering long term brain injury. Through these recommendations I believe we can all successfully change, and continue to enjoy, the game America loves.