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Does Football have a future? Or, perhaps, should Football have a future?
February 13, 2012 9:52 AM   Subscribe

Does Football have a Future?: Football players are anywhere from five to nineteen times more likely than a member of the general population to suffer from a dementia-like illness. This is likely a result of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (picture), neurodegeneration caused by receiving multiple concussions or even subconcussions that are not detectable around time of impact. CTE has been linked to other mood and behavior changes, including suicidal depression (a great review of the medical literature generally), and has been found in football players as young as 21. And, of course, there is the sometimes debilitating physical disability (either acutely or later in life) from playing a hard-contact sport. The NFL has a long history of adjusting safety standards in bits and pieces (e.g., legalization of the forward pass) to meet public concern over potential injury and disability from playing the sport, though still to some degree publicly denies a connection between football and brain damage. New Yorker writer Ben McGrath talks to football players (past and present), their families (often left behind by untimely death or dementia-twilight), franchise heads, and doctors to explore this history, the crushing legacy of sports injuries, and the question of whether it is possible to reform the rules to minimize the risk of concussion and thus the risk of CTE (if any such risk is acceptable). Would it still be football if such changes were to tone down the violence? (Yes, No [from iconoclast Buzz Bissinger]) And, uncomfortably: is the sport of football unethical for its players, even if entered into on their own volition? (previously in the New Yorker; previously on MetaFilter 1, 2, 3)

* Of course, CTE is not in the slightest exclusive to football players, as highlighted recently by a major piece in the NYT on the life and death (by suicide) of a young NHL hockey enforcer.
* Much of the attention on CTE is due to the intensive investigative journalism of NYT reporter Alan Schwarz, who more-or-less shifted to "sports concussions" as his newspaper beat.
* The Concussion Blog referenced in the article, regularly covering not just concussions but a wide range of sports-injury topics.
posted by Keter (117 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Good post - lots here to digest. And because I just finished reading it and don't see it in your links:

What would the end of football look like?
posted by never used baby shoes at 9:56 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have not read any of the links, but it seems like the players are so fast and strong, these days, that their heads, necks, and joints will never keep up, and suffer for it. The game has outpaced the ability of these tissues to withstand it.
posted by Danf at 10:02 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just about any other activity causing this much unnecessary pathology would be banned. However, there are counter-examples: tobacco & alcohol.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:02 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, and "Shake it off. Rub some dirt on it!"
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:03 AM on February 13, 2012


It can still be football if the violence is toned down. It would actually be better, cleaner defensive football. Yes, the game is faster and the players stronger than they used to be. However... if players actually tried to wrap each other up and tackle instead of just jacking the shit out of each other the game would immediately become a lot less violent. If I see one more defensive back try to shoulder a guy out of bounds instead of wrapping him him (and just bouncing off allowing an extra 15 yards) my brain is going to cease functioning.

You can thank Sportscenter's Top 10 for this BTW.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:07 AM on February 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


This was a great article, and there's another over on Grantland.com.

It would be the height of irony if the future of football looked like rugby, where no helmets and pads means reduced concussions, because it emphasizes arm-tackling instead of just launching yourself at people.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:08 AM on February 13, 2012 [12 favorites]


I think your first line should be "Do FOOTBALL PLAYERS have a future". The sport of football makes so much freakin money there is no way in hell it is ending in any lifetime worth talking about.
posted by spicynuts at 10:09 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


After this year's Pro Bowl there was widespread commentary about how the game was "a disgrace" because players weren't willing to hit each other hard in a game that doesn't mean anything. It seems more of a disgrace to me that the commentators sitting behind a desk at ESPN studios see it as a given that these guys are willing to put their own health on the line for the other sixteen games in a season in order to entertain people and make money. I don't know. I love football, but I'm starting to get to the point where I feel uncomfortable about watching it, knowing that large numbers of those guys on the field are going to suffer serious long-term consequences.
posted by something something at 10:09 AM on February 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


I've bashed my brain bucket around so many times and just got up and went about my business as normal that this is a fear for me. I've had multiple occasions of losing consciousness through bicycle crashes (35 years ago bike helmets were very uncommon), 4-Wheeling crashes, and had hard hits in football and Tae Kwon Do. I also had a lot of boyhood fights. I am a big guy that got in a lot of fights with bigger guys as a kid (mostly on the receiving end). Brains are funny things at the best of times. I haven't exactly treated mine well.

Unfortunately to test for CTE you have to be dead.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:11 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I refuse to watch football on ethical grounds.

This is a very satisfying way to explain to friends and co-workers why you didn't watch whatever game happened over the weekend.
posted by mullacc at 10:12 AM on February 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's not just American Football, Association Football has a problem too.
posted by oddman at 10:13 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


these guys are willing to put their own health on the line for the other sixteen games in a season in order to entertain people and make money.

Not to mention that the greedy little owners keep claiming the fans want an 18 game season, which I haven't found a single fucking fan actually agreeing with. How many QBs did the Texans go through this year?
posted by nathancaswell at 10:13 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I gave up on football officially this year. I haven't watched much in years, but I still played fantasy football, but no more. There are so many better sports to spend my time on.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:14 AM on February 13, 2012


Why not just adjust the helmets? Instead of just putting them on people's heads so the head and neck take the impact, attach them to the shoulder pads, so that the head isn't even touched. You could even put a big transparent dome over the whole head area, or else attach it so that it moves with the head on like a mechanized arm or something. Both would look pretty cool.

I think it's odd how no one wants to think about technical solutions, it's either "we should end the game, it's not ethical" or "It doesn't matter I like my football!" Why not just focus on solving the problem?
posted by delmoi at 10:15 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


It would be the height of irony if the future of football looked like rugby, where no helmets and pads means reduced concussions, because it emphasizes arm-tackling instead of just launching yourself at people.

I really think it would be wise for the NFL to begin a phased introduction of "No Pad Football". Start at Pop Warner, and bring it to the next level (High School, College, Pro) as the kids age, such that all football would be No Pad within 10 years or so. Maybe you start a professional No Pad league to spur interest at the beginning of the phase-in, with the eventual intent of making it a developmental "minor" league once the NFL goes No Pad (which also steals some of the NCAA's thunder as the feeder league for the NFL, in case the NCAA doesn't go along with the phase-in).

By No Pad I don't mean zero pads, but soft foam/gel pads would be OK, like you see in rugby and soccer occasionally.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:15 AM on February 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


The kind of football that actually requires usage of the feet is going to have a great future. As an added bonus, the obesity rates might go down too.
posted by Renoroc at 10:16 AM on February 13, 2012


Association Football has a problem too.

Very true. A decent argument against athletics as a profession in general. It's not the activity per se, it's the repeated (and repeated and repeated) activity.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:16 AM on February 13, 2012


Clear eyes, full hearts, can't
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 10:16 AM on February 13, 2012 [6 favorites]


One of the few things I ever outright banned/refused when I was raising my son was going out for football. It was an unpopular decision to enforce and stick to, but I'm really glad now that I did.

Of course, now he smokes tobacco, so I guess he showed me, eh?
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:17 AM on February 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


I wonder how much these stats would improve by simply banning steroids for real.
posted by DU at 10:18 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Obviously, concussions are a problem in any sport, but I think people are a little too quick to point out the concussions in sports like soccer or basketball which pale in comparison to the number of head injuries in football and hockey. A basketball play on which someone gets a concussion is a mistake, a hockey or football play on which gets a concussion is a probably a "success"; that's a huge difference.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:22 AM on February 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


a hockey or football play on which gets a concussion is a probably a "success"; that's a huge difference.

If you define a success as a 15 yard penalty, sure.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:23 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't think you can have this conversation about football without talking about hockey too. One of the NHL's biggest star players is in the middle of what appears to be a concussion caused career tailspin and hasn't played reliably for going on 2 seasons now.
posted by feloniousmonk at 10:25 AM on February 13, 2012


Anyway, it seems to me that, occasional brutal "headhunting" hits aside (James Harrison, Dunta Robinson, Brandon Meriweather, I am looking at you) the majority of concussions happen not from guys going for forearm shivers or even helmet to helmet... they happen when a player gets tackled and his helmet impacts the ground.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:26 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another article I missed, about pushback from the NFL against scientists and doctors investigating CTE.
posted by Keter at 10:28 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why not just adjust the helmets?

It's unknown if it's even possible to design a helmet (that someone could actually play in) that could make a brain safe from injury during football. Impacts are 200-300G and can be higher. Current technology soaks about 95Gs. CTE develops with 100G impacts or less. Current helmet technology would need to be 2 to 3 times better than it is now at least. It's not at all clear how to do that.
posted by bonehead at 10:28 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I follow all of this concussion stuff fairly closely, as I have a 13 year old who plays football. Yes, the (NFL, NCAA - pick your bogeyman) has been negligent. Yes, football players put their selves at risk by playing through injuries and hard hits because they love the game, or more likely, are afraid of being Wally Pipped or being labeled as soft. But these problems start at an early age and I place a lot of that blame on parents and coaches of young footballers.

This is the first year that my son has played, and it was with great reservations that we decided to let him. His school district has a policy that of a kid complains during a game or practice that there head hurts, they are immediately pulled from the game/practice and have to sit out for a week and get a quasi-evaluation from the school trainer, parents are informed and school administration is informed. The impetus of all of this, of course, was not concern with kids health, but because a lawsuit was filed against the school, the district, the coaches, the trainer, the admins, the helmet manufacturers, anyone and everyone. And the suit was not only alleging negligence, but was seeking damages for future earnings, i.e. if the 8th grader in question made the NFL. Naturally the suit was settled for an undisclosed amount of money. Now, the fact that these rules were implemented for the wrong reasons is fine by me, they are in effect and I think they are a step in the right direction.

But, here's the rub. Everyone knows the rules are in effect. So parents just tell their kids not to say anything to their coaches if their head hurts. And the coaches, at the orientation, drove the point home that "If you have a headache or your head starts to hurt in the game you MUST inform the coaches and you WILL miss the next week of football" in a way that all but said "if your head hurts during a game keep it to yourself if you want to play football." It was disgusting.

So week 3, the star player on the team is pulled from the game and at half-time, the gung-ho dad living vicariously through the athletic achievements of his son (we've all seen Friday Night Lights ) approaches the coaches and asked what was wrong with his son and the coach just pointed at his head and the Dad was like "so what, he's tough put him back in" and the coach just shrugged his shoulders and said "you know the rules." After the game, according to my son, the kids dad just ripped into him, calling him a pussy and saying he might as well try out to be a cheerleader, etc. This sounds extreme, but I guarantee it's common. Just listening to the parents in stands yelling "RIP SOMEONE'S HEAD OFF" "KILL SOMEBODY" "COME ON DON'T BE SCARED HIT SOME BODY" "CLEAN HIS CLOCK" and on and on.

That and then when someone does just crush someone, the crowd goes wild and parents high five each other. It is so disturbing and I don't know if my son will be playing next year. I am confident that he would report an injury, but you never really know right?

My point is, this, like so many other things, starts at home. I don't have any illusion that it will work or even be attempted, but parents standing up for their kid's health at schools and Pop Warner leagues would be a start in the right direction. Nothing I have seen makes me believe this will happen.
posted by holdkris99 at 10:29 AM on February 13, 2012 [23 favorites]


There's also the ongoing low level head to head impacts that lineman face on pretty much every single play, and as the comentators are so quick to point out during a game, head to head contact is totally fine if the player is a running back. I think there is a lot of room to revise the rules such that they're equitable across all positions, but short of eliminating the helmet altogether, I think this is inevitable.

I quit playing football as a kid for other reasons (coach was a dick who didn't let us drink water in 100 degree heat until after we completed our allotment of wind sprints) but one of the things I remember most clearly is the near constant headache.
posted by feloniousmonk at 10:29 AM on February 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


head to head contact is totally fine if the player is a running back.

It's ok, the running backs get theirs... the refs will throw a flag if a defensive end lightly brushes a QB's helmet with his pinky, but RBs are allowed to literally punch a defensive back in the face and call it a "stiff" arm. That shit is real questionable.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:32 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is something Ta-Nehisi Coates has been talking about every now and then. He hasn't given up football, but he's getting closer and closer and he seems to know it. In articles like this you get a sense of the pain he feels between knowing what football is doing the to lives of the players and giving up something that has been a part of his identity for his whole life. I can sympathize.
posted by charred husk at 10:33 AM on February 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also, great post Keter. I had thought of doing one centered around the Grantland article some have mentioned but would have taken the easy way out. Good on you for putting in the work on your post.
posted by holdkris99 at 10:33 AM on February 13, 2012


> Does football have a future?

From the wikipedia article on the list of most watched television broadcasts United States:

Of the 46 shows on this list: 21 are Super Bowls

Oh yeah football has a future. It will not be uniformly glamorous. The thing I am pruriently curious about is will O. J. Simpson's eventual autopsy show an exceptionally messed-up brain? Football fans bet on everything else; surely there's going to be a betting line on that one pretty soon.
posted by bukvich at 10:34 AM on February 13, 2012


The bottom line is that players are given a chance to literally sell their future health for multiple million dollar paydays today. It's tempting to a lot of people, and the NFL rakes in incredible amounts of cash for facilitating it. The money ensures that football will not go away.

The sad reality is the the average NFL career is under four years in length, traumatic injuries can happen to any player at any time, and even successful players go bankrupt after the money from their playing days is gone.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 10:42 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


List of US professional Major League sports not dependent on severe head trauma or steroid abuse:

Basketball
Soccer
Um... lacrosse?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 10:48 AM on February 13, 2012


scratch soccer
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 10:50 AM on February 13, 2012


I would be stunned if there was a major professional league anywhere in the world in any sport that doesn't have problems with performance enhancers, including basketball, hockey, race car driving, cricket, whatever.
posted by feloniousmonk at 10:51 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The money ensures that football will not go away.

But surely you could have said the same thing about boxing or horse racing 50 years ago?
posted by Rock Steady at 10:52 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


scratch lacrosse
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 10:53 AM on February 13, 2012


Maybe bowling is PED-free. I don't know if that counts as major, but I saw it on ESPN yesterday. (Although that's a dangerous metric considering some of the stuff they show.)
posted by feloniousmonk at 10:54 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


scratch basketball

gotta be a result of head trauma or drug use, right?
posted by Rock Steady at 10:56 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


List of US professional Major League sports not dependent on severe head trauma or steroid abuse:

Basketball
Soccer
Um... lacrosse?


"Dependent" is a little much (and ask Don Zimmer about head trauma). I don't know how you define "major league" but there is a PGA Tour. And the USTA.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:57 AM on February 13, 2012


oops - i read basketball as baseball.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:58 AM on February 13, 2012


mullacc: "I refuse to watch football on ethical grounds.

This is a very satisfying way to explain to friends and co-workers why you didn't watch whatever game happened over the weekend.
"

You must be fun to walk away from at parties.
posted by meadowlark lime at 10:59 AM on February 13, 2012 [30 favorites]



The bottom line is that players are given a chance to literally sell their future health for multiple million dollar paydays today.

Even absent that, they would do it. I have a cousin who paid for college on a full ride football scholarship, and now plays professionally as he works on his masters.

He's not a moron. He's not deluded that he's going to make a million dollar paycheck. He's young guy who is having the time of his life playing a sport he has always enjoyed. He'd do it for free.

Frankly, I don't blame him.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:59 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I apologize if this is a stupid question, since I haven't even begun to digest all of those links, but are these issues primarily limited to American Football or are they common in Canadian Football, as well? I assume that they affect both leagues/countries, since a healthy portion of players in the CFL are Americans who were trained up by American colleges and universities, but I haven't heard much about these issues outside of the context of American Football in general and the NFL in particular.
posted by asnider at 11:13 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


gotta be a result of head trauma or drug use, right?

Some people is just crazy. Needn't be no cause. It just is what it is.

(or Ron Ron is acting out a David Lynch screenplay realtime)
posted by srboisvert at 11:14 AM on February 13, 2012


This is a good look at the long-term effects of football on the players on an NFL team, and some insight into their mentality.


One of the most gruesome NFL tableaux of the '80s was when Cincinnati nosetackle Tim Krumrie suffered a triple fracture of his left leg during Super Bowl XXIII in January 1989. ... "If I could have the same career but had to break the other leg, I'd do it again today. It wouldn't make a difference. I've been out now 16 years, and I still dream football. Something psychologically in there still wants me to play."
posted by stargell at 11:18 AM on February 13, 2012


You know, for a long time I have been mildly annoyed by mealy mouthed disclaimers that go with various activities. Why not just go full cigarette pack?

"Football is dangerous. You will suffer head trauma, concussion, and brain damage, resulting in acute and chronic conditions that continue to deteriorate long after participation in football has stopped. You will also suffer permanent lifelong damage to every tissue in your body, particularly muscles, nerves, bones and connective tissues. It is possible you may not die while playing football, though there is a chance of sudden or slow and malingering death."

Yeah I know the last clause is mealy mouthed, but I figure guaranteeing fatality is overdoing it a little.

On a more serious note, is there a name for the ratio of stable risk to safety practice? What I mean is, it is well documented that increasing safety measures results in riskier behaviors, resulting in little or no net gain in actual safety. Condom use is an exception I suppose, but you know what I mean. The references in this thread to no-pad football and rugby imply that people are aware of the effect I am talking about, I was wondering if there is a name for it, like the Dunning-Kruger effect of safety.

As for the death of football, I hope it doesn't go, but eventually it will. I'll be dead by then.
posted by Xoebe at 11:20 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


delmoi: “Why not just adjust the helmets? Instead of just putting them on people's heads so the head and neck take the impact, attach them to the shoulder pads, so that the head isn't even touched. You could even put a big transparent dome over the whole head area, or else attach it so that it moves with the head on like a mechanized arm or something. Both would look pretty cool.”

People have talked about this; and if I'm not mistaken, supposedly higher-safety helmets have been tried, as far back as the seventies, but never caught on.

The trouble is, first of all, I don't think the solution you've described would work. Pushing the force onto your shoulders would just destroy your shoulders, which would probably happen faster and be more obvious, granted, but it wouldn't solve the problem of the impact.

Actually, the consensus among scientists and doctors seems to be that the best technical solution would be to remove helmets entirely. The whole reason the excessive impacts of football are possible is because the tiny amount of protection afforded by helmets keeps people from seeing the effect the concussions are having. Take away the helmets, and people would not be able to hit like that any more.

Of course, that would arguably make football an entirely different game. And I'm not sure that those running the show will want to do that. People pretty much watch football for the hits; and that's what's going to have to stop to make football sustainable.
posted by koeselitz at 11:22 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the players-turned-pundit on ESPN, I think it was Mark Schlereth, but I could be wrong, refers to football as "chess with gladiators" and I've never seen another former player in his presence bat an eye at that characterization. I think it's very instructive of the mindset most pro players are greeting the game with. This mindset will be very difficult to overcome.

About better helmets: my understanding is that Eli Manning wears one of the newer improved models, but that this is why his head looks so oddly out of proportion to his body and players don't like to wear them for this reason, which is basically the same reason why MLB players don't wear the similarly modern batting helmets that are available.
posted by feloniousmonk at 11:25 AM on February 13, 2012


Leather hats!
posted by Mister_A at 11:26 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the players-turned-pundit on ESPN, I think it was Mark Schlereth, but I could be wrong, refers to football as "chess with gladiators" and I've never seen another former player in his presence bat an eye at that characterization. I think it's very instructive of the mindset most pro players are greeting the game with. This mindset will be very difficult to overcome.

This attitude is also common among fans, I suspect. I know that I tend to fall back on a similar explanation when asked why I prefer football over hockey (which borders on blasphemy here in Canada). I tend to think of football as a thinking man's game, which I know is kind of ridiculous in a lot of ways.
posted by asnider at 11:28 AM on February 13, 2012


From the Grantland article linked above:
If college football dies, Norman, Oklahoma (current home to one of us), has … noodling? And what about Clemson, in South Carolina, which relies on the periodic weekend football surge into town for its restaurant and retail sales? Imagine a small place of 12,000 people that periodically receives a sudden influx of 100,000 visitors or more, most of them eager to spend money on what is one of their major leisure outings.
I don't know how sad I'd be if places like Clemson or Norman or the other several dozen college towns had to actually focus on, you know, academics.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 11:28 AM on February 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


One of the players-turned-pundit on ESPN, I think it was Mark Schlereth, but I could be wrong, refers to football as "chess with gladiators" and I've never seen another former player in his presence bat an eye at that characterization

That statement is sort of true, making the odds that Mark Schlereth said it astronomical.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:31 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't really think it's ridiculous at all to think there's a substantial intellectual aspect to football, especially in the NFL. While the major broadcast networks are all caught up with trying to re-create scenes from Any Given Sunday, if you catch commentary with former coaches (Eric Mangini is great at this) or watch any of the All-22 films, there is an incredible depth to the game. Most of this goes on in the neutral zone and there are rarely bang bang TV style plays there so it doesn't get much coverage during live games.

As to similar stuff in the CFL, I admit I don't watch it all that often, but from what I have seen, the game is relatively similar so I suspect they have similar problems. It may just be less obvious because if you're a big James Harrison type you play in the NFL. If they were all that different I doubt you would see as many standout CFL players migrate to the NFL.
posted by feloniousmonk at 11:32 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Helmets are actually part of the problem. Though they're not explicitly meant to be used as weapons, they give players and coaches a false sense of protection against hits. In the end that probably leads to risk compensation and homeostasis, if not outright increase.

At this point I'm not sure the danger to minors playing the game can be justified. The cumulative injury to the brain that happens in Pop Warner and high school football and boys'/men's hockey is singularly damaging to future quality of life in a way that torn ACLs and osteoarthritis aren't, e.g.,

Hard Hits, Hard Numbers: The First Study of Head Impacts in Youth Football
In a groundbreaking study, researchers at Virginia Tech placed instrumented helmets on 7 and 8-year-old football players and collected data on more than 750 hits to the head over the course of a season.

The findings provide the first quantitative assessment of the acceleration and risk that young brains are exposed to in youth football.

Lead researcher, Stefan Duma, a professor of Biomedical Engineering, has been gathering data on head impacts among college players at Virginia Tech for nine seasons. In his new study, he reports some head impacts in youth football equal in force to some of the bigger hits he sees at the college level. “Nobody expected to see hits of this magnitude,” says Duma.
The Fragile Teenage Brain: An in-depth look at concussions in high school football
The sickness will be rooted in football's tragic flaw, which is that it inflicts concussions on its players with devastating frequency. Although estimates vary, several studies suggest that up to 15 percent of football players suffer a mild traumatic brain injury during the season. (The odds are significantly worse for student athletes — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 2 million brain injuries are suffered by teenage players every year.) [...]

The consequences appear to be particularly severe for the adolescent brain.
[...] In 2002, a team of neurologists surveying several hundred high school football players concluded that athletes who had suffered three or more concussions were nearly ten times more likely to exhibit multiple "abnormal" responses to head injury, including loss of consciousness and persistent amnesia.

A 2004 study, meanwhile, revealed that football players with multiple concussions were 7.7 times more likely to experience a "major drop in memory performance" and that three months after a concussion they continued to experience "persistent deficits in processing complex visual stimuli." What's most disturbing, perhaps, is that these cognitive deficits have a real-world impact: When compared with similar students without a history of concussions, athletes with two or more brain injuries demonstrate statistically significant lower grade-point averages.
But with the pros, there are cases like Kris Dielman's, where a grown-ass adult says that he knows he's been hurt and is in danger, but accepts it: "Deal with it. That's how I got here, doing stupid (stuff) on the football field. It got me 10 years in, so I'm all right with that."

To what lengths should we go to protect a grown man from himself, knowing that the average NFL/NHL career is short-lived and that he might have decades ahead of him of possible depression, personality change, or dementia?

On the other hand, if enough parents and then schools eventually decide to alter or end the game, that might become a moot question.
posted by hat at 11:39 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Canada here, head injury concerns in the CFL are pretty much on the same level as the NFL, difference being that the CFL players aren't being hugely compensated monetarily to take such risk.
posted by Cosine at 11:40 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The future of football is droids.
posted by newdaddy at 11:57 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The future of football is droids.
posted by cashman at 12:01 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not comfortable telling people what they should do "for their own good."
posted by coolguymichael at 12:04 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why not just adjust the helmets? Instead of just putting them on people's heads so the head and neck take the impact, attach them to the shoulder pads, so that the head isn't even touched. You could even put a big transparent dome over the whole head area, or else attach it so that it moves with the head on like a mechanized arm or something. Both would look pretty cool.

I think it's odd how no one wants to think about technical solutions, it's either "we should end the game, it's not ethical" or "It doesn't matter I like my football!" Why not just focus on solving the problem?
posted by delmoi at 12:15 on February 13
My impression was that improvements in protective gear over the decades tend to encourage more violent maneuvers. If the head was more or less untouchable, we'd probably start seeing stronger body blows.
posted by ZeusHumms at 12:05 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Leather hats!

Don't laugh -- the idea actually gets floated around. The idea being that if you do that, you lessen the chance of the helmet being used as a spearing weapon. Again, this is the thought behind making football more like rugby -- removing protection ironically makes it safer.*

* where safer = less repeated concussions. Rugby is still incredibly violent.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:22 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


There was an interesting Quora thread recently on the toughness of American football relative to rugby. One important point I took away from it is that rugby differs from football not just in not using helmets or a lot of padding, but in the fact it's played continuously like soccer, not in short bursts like football. As a result, rugby players tend to not hit as hard, since they have to conserve energy. (Also, pro rugby seasons are far longer than football seasons.) Football players, however, tend to move more aggressively when the ball is live, since they can rest in between plays. Combine that with the suit of armor that football players now wear, and it's little wonder that football is harder on the body over the long term.

I think football as we know it is doomed; bloodlust is now such a part of the culture surrounding the game that efforts at reform are unlikely to succeed. Rather, it will go the way of boxing: It'll lose its respectability and start attracting a seedier crowd, thus further marginalizing it. Donald Trump will start hosting the Super Bowl in Vegas.
posted by Cash4Lead at 12:28 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I tend to think of football as a thinking man's game, which I know is kind of ridiculous in a lot of ways.

Chuck Klosterman wrote an interesting thing in one of his books about how football is one of our most progressive sports in terms of tactics/on-field innovation and yet culturally it is by far the most regressive. NFL stars from 30 years ago would be ineffective today and stars from 50 years ago would be killed on the field because the game has changed at an astonishing rate compared to the other major sports, but it's by far the least likely to have an openly gay player anytime soon, and the sport is marketed as if the fans generally feel like Newt Gingrich's politics are a bit on the pink side.
posted by Copronymus at 12:30 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately: Further, Michael Keating, the medical director for USA Rugby, says that a review of the scientific literature indicates that the number of incidences of concussions among rugby players and American-football players are similar. Some data suggest rugby incidence is 5% higher.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:32 PM on February 13, 2012


OK, here is my detailed timeline for No Pad football. The roll-out will take 15 years. NFL, you are welcome to steal this.

2015 -- The NFL announces formation of the National Professional Football League, a No Pad Football league with franchises in 32 mid-market US cities, including McAllen, TX, Baton Rouge, LA, Bethlehem, PA, and Dayton, OH. For now, no formal relationship between NFL teams and NPFL teams exist, but this will change over time.

2017 -- Thanks to massive grants from the NFL and NFLPA, Pop Warner football announces it will move to 100% No Pad football starting this year.

2020 -- The National Federation of State High School Associations, thanks to generous funding from the NFL, the NPFL, and the NFLPA, announces that state football leagues can begin seeking grant funding to transition their leagues to No Pad football, with a goal of transitioning all US High School football leagues by 2027.

2025 -- The PAC-16 becomes the first Division 1 conference to transition to No Pad football, followed by the ACC and the BIG Conference. The SEC and Big-16 retain their "Padded Football" leagues, but most of their members add No Pad Football as a varsity sport in 2026.

2028 -- The NFL announces it will go No Pad in the 2029 pre-season, and will be fully No Pad in 2030. Formal player development deals with NPFL teams are announced beginning this year.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:36 PM on February 13, 2012


You missed one:

2016 -- The National Professional Football League goes out of business.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:38 PM on February 13, 2012 [11 favorites]


One of the significant differences between American football and rugby (union) is that football is more focused on posession of the ball, and the claiming of territory, while rugby is much more fluid - tackling doesn't stop the play, posession can change on the ground, and players are expected to be continuously moving.

All that, in addition to the armor that football players wear, allows them to hit harder, and the emphasis on knockdown tackling instead of wrapping leads to ever-more-jarring hits.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:40 PM on February 13, 2012


Just add an acceleration sensor to the helmet, monitored remotely by the ref. Any player with 100g acceleration is pulled from the game. Problem solved.
posted by miyabo at 12:53 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


2016 -- The National Professional Football League goes out of business.

I'm assuming it is bankrolled, at least at first, by the NFL -- like the NBA does with the WNBA.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:53 PM on February 13, 2012


People pretty much watch football for the hits

I've never come away from a game feeling cheated if I didn't see a brutal hit or two, and I've never heard anyone else express that feeling either. Certainly I appreciate a good, solid tackle - not hit, but tackle (there's a difference). But that's not the draw. I watch for this and this.
posted by schoolgirl report at 1:02 PM on February 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


I read the main article in the OP (good overall summary, but long) and the Grantland article imagining the end of American football as we know it (imaginative but incomplete). Strange to think that football as Americans know it started off with the intent of being an upper-class training ground for Yalies.

But I'm inclined to wonder what it would be really like if American style football died off. Handwaving away how it could die off, the loss of the sport would have ripple effects all over, at every level from grade school to professional. Colleges build identities, community, and athletic departments around football, often at great expense to the student population and local communities. And football stadiums at all levels take money to build and maintain, often incurring debt that takes decades to pay off via taxes, various local levies and fees, or for colleges, student fees. Take away their main attraction, and what use are they?
posted by ZeusHumms at 1:03 PM on February 13, 2012


I'm not comfortable telling people what they should do "for their own good."

Neither am I. But I'm also uncomfortable with the wealthy and powerful exploiting the desire of young men to succeed, and with them doing this by using their bodies and brains as expendable resources in order to create a spectacle. I personally believe that people should be able to beat any kind of hell they like out of each other, if they both consent. That doesn't mean I have to believe in the right to create a National Tramps Fighting With Iron Bars League.
posted by howfar at 1:08 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


it's by far the least likely to have an openly gay player anytime soon

Klosterman must not have spent time in a major-league baseball locker room. Those fuckers are Evil.

Bold prediction: The first openly gay man to actively play (not just out himself only after retirement) in one of the four major TV sports will be in the NHL, beating the NBA only because the teams are twice the size, so there are simply more players. The NFL will be third. Major league baseball will be last.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:15 PM on February 13, 2012


Those fuckers are Evil.

Everyone always says this. Why is this?
posted by nathancaswell at 1:18 PM on February 13, 2012


Baseball allows selfishness in a way that football prohibits and basketball penalizes. The central act in a baseball game is one batter against one pitcher. It is kind of amazing to see the way football players will defend one another almost no matter what.
posted by bukvich at 1:23 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


People pretty much watch football for the hits

This was never the case for me. I didn't like to see big hits, though they always make the highlight reals. I always was interested in smart play-calling, more than anything else.
posted by empath at 1:24 PM on February 13, 2012


People pretty much watch football for the hits

The hits are an easy thing for people to like about football -- visually stunning and doesn't require much sophistication. I think people turn on the football game for primarily three reasons:

1. An excuse to get together with friends and drink
2. Their favorite team is doing well and they want to get on the bandwagon
3. They have money on the game

Fantasy football is probably a fast-growing fourth reason, but at this point I still think it is an ancillary benefit, not a driver of eyeballs. I don't think anybody sits down on a Sunday afternoon and says, "Put on the football, I want to see some hits!" The three reasons that I listed above will, I think, persist even if you make significant changes to the rules.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:34 PM on February 13, 2012


Everyone always says this. Why is this?

It's just the culture of the minor-league system. It's just all very ... uncouth is the best way to describe it.

NFL and NBA players virtually all attend college in one form or another, or at least rub shoulders with it. Baseball provides an avenue to the major-leagues that most often bypasses college altogether.

Hockey has a similar minor-league system, but is culturally quite different. Canadians are actually well-mannered.

Yes, I'm painting with massive, broad strokes. Deal with it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:34 PM on February 13, 2012


It's just all very ... uncouth

"Got up in the morning, took the most perfect double tapered shit I've ever had in my life....True story.....Who's the pitchers in this game?"
posted by nathancaswell at 1:46 PM on February 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Football could not be more tailor-made for advertising, what with the constant interruptions in play and stoppage of time as they move the chains. Well, basketball is probably worse at interruptions, as the last five minutes of any game take like half an hour. So the league doesn't really have a financial incentive to slow the game down and interrupt that flow of juicy advertising income. And, as I am always reminded by the business types I work with, "cash is king."

Until the promise of money goes away, people will be killing themselves slowly.

I think the NFL saw "The Last Boy Scout" and decided that it was a business plan.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 1:57 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hockey has a similar minor-league system, but is culturally quite different. Canadians are actually well-mannered.

I can assure that minor league hockey players are also evil fuckers.
posted by docgonzo at 2:13 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Klosterman must not have spent time in a major-league baseball locker room. Those fuckers are Evil.

Bold prediction: The first openly gay man to actively play (not just out himself only after retirement) in one of the four major TV sports will be in the NHL, beating the NBA only because the teams are twice the size, so there are simply more players. The NFL will be third. Major league baseball will be last.


The gay player thing was actually my interjection, I don't think it came up in Klosterman. As far as likelihood, we can look at the state of gay players in the four major leagues. It's a pretty limited way to analyze this stuff, but it's at least something.

In the NHL, there hasn't been an openly gay player yet, but Brian Burke's son was playing in the NCAA and came out, plus Sean Avery filmed a pro-marriage equality ad (and has been very clear that he'd have the back of anyone who did come out) and Brent Sopel took the Stanley Cup to a gay pride parade. Easily the most likely of the leagues.

In the NBA, John Amaechi came out after his career was over. There's also an Golden State Warriors front office type who's out.

In MLB, there's Billy Bean (not Billy Beane), who is even less notable as a baseball figure than John Amaechi is as a basketball figure, but he did come out, so that's at least something. Glenn Burke was out during his career to his teammates but not to the general public and also apparently invented the high-five if you believe Wikipedia.

As for the NFL, you've got 3 players, Roy Simmons, David Kopay, and Esera Tuaolo, none of whom were openly gay until well after their careers were over, plus a couple of guys who were arrested for sodomy but refused to acknowledge anything during their lifetimes.

3 is actually way more than I figured there would be until I looked it up, so maybe it's more likely to happen in the NFL than MLB, but it sure doesn't feel that way from the outside, which was actually the point I was trying to make originally: football culture is portrayed as deeply conservative.
posted by Copronymus at 2:32 PM on February 13, 2012


Disclosure, I used to work for a company that produced tests that would show an impairment in brain function.

The main business of this company was in support for clinical trials. The company could scientifically show that we could detect brain impairment in a drug trial, i.e. the company could show that their tests could detect changes that could be verified and validated in other ways.

The company's software was used for testing in Australian Rules Football and for Rugby. It was also used in the English Premier League.

The US sporting market and in particular American Football was seen as the great potential cash cow. At a high school level, where there are hundreds of thousands of athletes who should be checked to see if concussion and knocks to the head had harmed them. The insurance companies that insured the schools were wanting protection against the potentially large litigation that was coming their way if nothing was done.

The company I worked for, and a few others, were fairly confident that they could provide that protection at a reasonable cost.

In short, testing of damage to athlete's cognitive function early on should be able to protect sufficiently against much of the damage. American Football will not end because of the brain damage.
posted by sien at 2:33 PM on February 13, 2012


It's unknown if it's even possible to design a helmet (that someone could actually play in) that could make a brain safe from injury during football. Impacts are 200-300G and can be higher. Current technology soaks about 95Gs. CTE develops with 100G impacts or less. Current helmet technology would need to be 2 to 3 times better than it is now at least. It's not at all clear how to do that.

That's why I'm saying you attach the helmet to the shoulders, not the head.
The trouble is, first of all, I don't think the solution you've described would work. Pushing the force onto your shoulders would just destroy your shoulders
Hmm, seems odd to think that forces that could damage your shoulders wouldn't damage your neck. You'd still have lots of padding, and you could have even more then on the head.
posted by delmoi at 2:44 PM on February 13, 2012


I played 20+ years and have coached the last 7. My son now plays, and I spent the money from day one for him to have the most up to date helmet available, and one that monitors g's when he hits or is hit. If he is going to play, and wants to play, I will gladly pay that amount, as I played with helmets that had little to no padding as a youth.
posted by Senator at 2:45 PM on February 13, 2012


FYI - it is called the Riddell Revolution® IQ HITS™, runs about 1k.
posted by Senator at 2:49 PM on February 13, 2012


I think the people who are suggesting a move to no helmets, or soft helmets, are probably going to end up being correct, but I think there's more to it than just helmets: shoulder pads are massive. Check out the difference in pads between a QB and a linebacker, for example. The particulars behind why they are different right now mostly boils down to range of motion and things like that, but if there was a rule that mandated every player's shoulder pads be as minimal as the QBs and maybe even moreso, a lot of these crazy hits you see on receivers, etc., simply wouldn't happen because without those massive pads, both players will end up laid out.
posted by feloniousmonk at 2:56 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Delmoi, I don't know what game people would play in Buzz Lightyear suits, but it sure couldn't be football.
posted by bonehead at 3:01 PM on February 13, 2012


I can assure that minor league hockey players are also evil fuckers.

I'm sure there's more than a few. It's just that "evil" seems to be actively inculculated in baseball, whereas hockey it's more random.

Anecdata: I used to be a sportswriter in towns covering all four major sports. When we got a brand-new, inexperienced female sportswriter on the staff, we first assigned her to cover hockey, thinking it would actually provide better results. The hockey players were polite and would answer her questions. We were worried the baseball players would just harass her.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:10 PM on February 13, 2012


Hmm, seems odd to think that forces that could damage your shoulders wouldn't damage your neck.

Isn't the difference that the forces are already being dispersed down the body after the head takes the blow? Brain bounces in skull, neck moves, shoulders move and so on(all the work of the Lord!). If you transfered the force directly to the shoulders, with little dispersal through the head and neck, the damage would be pretty heavily concentrated there. I'm sure there is some way to engineer a solution to the particular problem of blows to the head, I'm just not sure it's going to be compatible with the game of American football.
posted by howfar at 3:12 PM on February 13, 2012


Hockey has a similar minor-league system, but is culturally quite different. Canadians are actually well-mannered.

I can assure that minor league hockey players are also evil fuckers


I like sports, but junior hockey, particularly the Canadian variety, seems like the Nth circle of hell. No hyperbole intended.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:12 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Laura Robinson thinks that if you cherish the young boys in your life, you should keep them away from the game of hockey."
posted by mrgrimm at 3:12 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


small correction - many professional rugby players wear light shoulder padding, and a substantial minority wear headgear.

if you want to be truly revolted by rugby injuries, do an image search for "rugby cauliflower ears"

But no, the brain injuries appear to be nothing like gridiron.
posted by wilful at 3:13 PM on February 13, 2012


Canada here, head injury concerns in the CFL are pretty much on the same level as the NFL, difference being that the CFL players aren't being hugely compensated monetarily to take such risk.

Yeah, they're slightly lower, 0.59 concussions per game versus 0.67 (with one extra player on the field, that's roughly 80% the concussion rate per player-game, and I would assume similar for subconcussion head trauma as well). I assume this is due to the CFL having smaller players, and status quo, as the average NFL player gets bigger, the average not-quite-NFL player in the CFL will track. The players are absolutely not being compensated as well as NFL players (the average NFL team has a handful of players individually making more than an entire CFL franchise), but Canadian players don't face the same future of staggering medical bills.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:20 PM on February 13, 2012


There's also the ongoing low level head to head impacts that lineman face on pretty much every single play

This. My understanding is that brain-damaging jolts happen fifty or sixty times a day with linesmen -- not just games but practices. It's worse to sub-concuss fifty times a day than it is to have a full concussion once. That's one reason why I'm skeptical of the soccer numbers. Brain trauma is pretty much the whole point of football on the line.

Which is one reason why the average life expectancy of NFL players is 53-58 years. The average life expectancy of NFL players' knees is half that. Almost all NFL players retire with at least partial disability; most cannot climb stairs.

One thing I wonder about is not just death but dramatic and horrible personality changes from brain damage. I mean, would you feel differently about a guy like Michael Vick if it was proven that his brain was destroyed? What happens to personal responsibility when people are suffering from prefrontal lobe damage that causes behavioral disorders? We know that's what happens: anger, decreased judgement, impulsiveness. What if we MADE these people this way for our entertainment?
posted by Fnarf at 3:26 PM on February 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am assuming Australian Rules football, which seems like violent anarchy is also a problem. It seems like professional athletes, no matter what sport, are really over-training themselves and over performing themselves to injuries, and often an early grave. I find it interesting that professional athletes don't seem to live any longer than the general population, although that is anecdata. perhaps the benefits of fitness ends when you train so hard for so long.

Baseball allows selfishness in a way that football prohibits and basketball penalizes. The central act in a baseball game is one batter against one pitcher. It is kind of amazing to see the way football players will defend one another almost no matter what.

I have to tell you I don't see that at all. Basketball, since there are so few players on the court seems to have the most showboating. Baseball, even though it is batter vs. pitcher superficially, a catcher calls the game and really has to know the subtleties and strengths of batters. A lot of prima donna pitchers will have special catchers that they will pitch to. Randy Johnson was famous for this. Infielders have to have an enormous amount of cooperation. I think baseball is more like a sports version of Adam Smith's pin factory. And baseball players do defend each other. A high spikes out slide by a runner @ second base will pretty much guarantee some close pitches, or that team's second baseman getting spikes in his face. Someone getting hit by a pitch that seems cheap, there is retaliation. This is probably less in the AL where pitchers don't hit.
posted by xetere at 3:30 PM on February 13, 2012


If you transfered the force directly to the shoulders, with little dispersal through the head and neck, the damage would be pretty heavily concentrated there.

The thing is, though, it's impossible to continue playing with a destroyed shoulder. You have to stop, no matter how tough you are. It is unfortunately quite easy for amped-up football players to "shake it off" on a head injury; there are many, many stories of players lining back up for another play with blurred vision, ringing in the ears, temporary deafness, disorientation. "The red mist" descends and you may not even know where you are, but you can still line up for another play.

Also, it is possible to live a productive life with damaged or destroyed limbs. Even quadriplegics are fully human. Not so much without a brain.
posted by Fnarf at 3:30 PM on February 13, 2012


schoolgirl report: "People pretty much watch football for the hits

I've never come away from a game feeling cheated if I didn't see a brutal hit or two, and I've never heard anyone else express that feeling either. Certainly I appreciate a good, solid tackle - not hit, but tackle (there's a difference). But that's not the draw. I watch for this and this .
"

I like this and this.
posted by wierdo at 3:33 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Away from competitive sports, I wonder what the rate of brain damage from concussion and related trauma in the general population is.
posted by ZeusHumms at 3:38 PM on February 13, 2012


>I am assuming Australian Rules football, which seems like violent anarchy is also a problem.

Not so much with the concussion, since all head contact is accidental and illegal, though former player Daniel Bell successfully sued his club and the Commission for acquired brain injury, and there are suggestions that headgear will be introduced in the next few years.
posted by wilful at 3:40 PM on February 13, 2012


I wonder what the rate of brain damage from concussion and related trauma in the general population is.

This source estimates 110 per 100,000. The concussion risk for one player from playing a 16 NFL game season (assuming the 0.67 per game divided by 44 players) is equivalent to living 221.5 years.

Or alternately, for there to be an equal chance for a player on the field and a spectator in the stands to have a concussion on any given Sunday, there would need to be 222,500 seats in the stadium.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:47 PM on February 13, 2012


Before the NFL, Bob Costas show had a great extended segment on concussions and the NFL including an interesting take from Jerry Jones.

I wish the whole thing was available online it was a great interview with many players and insiders about the effect of concussions on safety in the game. (This has a small segment with Rodney Harrison).
posted by stratastar at 3:59 PM on February 13, 2012


* Before the Superbowl.
posted by stratastar at 4:00 PM on February 13, 2012


delmoi: That's why I'm saying you attach the helmet to the shoulders, not the head.

It's not the impact that's the problem. It's that the head containing the brain is moving in whatever direction and then stops. Regardless of whether the force of the impact is dispersed down to the shoulders... the head will still stop moving and the brain will not until it impacts the skull. There is simply no way around that that doesn't require suspending the laws of physics. If you move and stop any container that contains a loose thing flopping about inside of it... that thing will connect forcefully with the container itself as it continues on its trajectory.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:32 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was under the vague impression that crushable helmets would help quite a bit, providing more distance for deceleration.
posted by effugas at 6:32 PM on February 13, 2012


the head will still stop moving and the brain will not until it impacts the skull

Well, kinda. The point of the argument is that the head won't start moving as rapidly in the first place, because the force acting on it will be dispersed into the greater mass of the body, and won't have so much rapid slowing down to do either. Hence those impacts will be less.

I can drive my car at 100mph and stop it without dying, how quickly the stopping occurs makes a fairly definitive difference.
posted by howfar at 6:33 PM on February 13, 2012


If you put people in delmoi's Buzz Lightyear costume, you'd end up with players still getting concussions but also getting horrific neck injuries.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 11:26 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


But, here's the rub. Everyone knows the rules are in effect. So parents just tell their kids not to say anything to their coaches if their head hurts. And the coaches, at the orientation, drove the point home that "If you have a headache or your head starts to hurt in the game you MUST inform the coaches and you WILL miss the next week of football" in a way that all but said "if your head hurts during a game keep it to yourself if you want to play football." It was disgusting.

The Onion's parody of the NFL's concussion awareness posters captured this insidious dynamic quite nicely.
Concussion Facts
Sometimes people love football so much it hurts.

A concussion is a Brain Injury that can affect the way your brain functions, sometimes so much that you could be benched or cut from the team. Concussions can occur following a hit that is so awesome, the brain twists around and can even impact the inside of the skull.

- If you've delivered a hit like this: That's a damn good hit! Keep it up!

- If you've been hit like this: Don't think about the fact that suffering concussions can give a player a reputation for weakness that could follow him around for years and reduce his salary or even end his career. [...]

Concussion Symptoms:

- Confusion
- Irritability (similar to a menstruating woman)
- Headache (similar to the ones your little sister or grandmother might complain about.)
- Aversion to noise and light, such as that encountered while playing in a nationally televised football game.
- Forgetting that your only other job options are construction, crime, or the military
posted by Rhaomi at 12:50 AM on February 14, 2012


How about giant, spongy, foam rubber type helmets? Nerf helmets?

But, yes, playing football is clearly very bad for your health. I'd be very happy if my alma mater walked away from it. Let the good ol' boys in the SEC have their fun while the rest of us get to keep our brains.
posted by mrhappy at 5:31 AM on February 14, 2012


Football players, however, tend to move more aggressively when the ball is live, since they can rest in between plays.

And often longer -- Ironman Football is long dead, when your offense is on an 8 minute drive, the defense is sitting all that time.*

And there's a very interesting point here, because the other US sport showing serious issues with CTE is hockey -- a game where players are rested frequently. It's unusual for a shift to last longer than a few minutes.



* Which is probably closer to 20 minutes in real time, with the various clock stoppages.
posted by eriko at 5:36 AM on February 14, 2012


If you put people in delmoi's Buzz Lightyear costume, you'd end up with players still getting concussions but also getting horrific neck injuries.

Oh quite probably yes, but that doesn't mean that vague hand-waving about "the laws of physics" explains the problem. The simple fact of an impact on a container does not mean the contents of the container will be damaged, or that there is no way to reduce that damage. Arguing otherwise suggests one must think bubble wrap is a scam by the packaging industry.

If you have an egg in a box, you can protect the egg by protecting the box. That does not mean more padding is the answer here. Obviously the answer is less padding. The same is true of boxing, btw. Boxing gloves (in their current form, at the very least) are the reason for the huge number of early deaths in that sport.
posted by howfar at 5:38 AM on February 14, 2012


That's why I'm saying you attach the helmet to the shoulders, not the head.

Issue. That can kill you.

When your head is moving forward at some velocity, it has inertia. When the head stops, the brain keeps moving, this is the most common cause of concussion.

So, lets say you are in a globe like this. You get hit, the globe stops, but your head? It doesn't stop. It whips forward, and if it does so hard enough, you get a basilar skull fracture and you probably die.

Right now, the common place for this is in automotive racing. The number of legendary names in racing that have died from this is staggering, with the biggest name in recent times being Dale Earnhardt.

But, if you tie the stop point to the shoulders, not the head, and let the head move freely, you're going to see a huge number of neck and head injuries, and you're going to see more people die on the field.

To stop this, if you tie the shoulder to the helmet, you're going to have to make sure the head and neck can't move as well. Now, you can't look around, and you have a tremendous mass up above the shoulders. While this might prevent deaths, I'm deeply afraid of what happens to backs.

In auto racing, they now do lock the head, neck and shoulders together, using the HANS device. It's very uncomfortable, it seriously limits the movement of your head, but in racing, you are strapped to a very strong seat by at least five, more likely six, straps, and you don't move your head much at all, esp. in closed-car series where the seat comes up and wraps partway around your head.*

You don't have that in football. To play the game, you need to see much more than the track ahead and the mirrors. I don't see how you can englobe the head, tie it to the neck and shoulders so that they move together safely, and still maintain visibility.

To me, it seems the rugby answer of get rid of the pads and back the force down is a better answer, but there's a big issue with that -- you have to literally throw out everybody who currently plays the game. They've been taught from day one to hit with pads, and they will not be safe in a game without them. They will hurt others badly, and they will hurt themselves badly, because they've taught their bodies that it is safe to hit that hard, because of the pads. Without them, reflexive behavior is going to be brutal.



* I'm critical of the exposed helmets, with little side supports, that prevail in F1 and IndyCar, but I must note here that of all the racing series, the one with the most violent brakes, the most violent turns, the most violent acceleration is also the one with the best safety record in the last 10 years -- F1. There was that dark weekend when Roland Ratzenburger and Aryton Senna both died, but since then, none -- and since then, since 1994, none. IRL/Indycar has lost four since then, most recently, last October when Dan Whedon was killed in a race in Las Vegas, and during the Indy Car split, Champ Car/CART killed three more.

Part of this, of course, is that F1 never runs ovals, and in the early years, IRL always ran ovals. CART ran a mix, as does Indycar today -- but two of the CART deaths were on road/street courses.

F1's saftey record since 1994 is truly, truly impressive.
posted by eriko at 5:59 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you have an egg in a box, you can protect the egg by protecting the box.

If you've ever successfully completed the "Egg Drop Contest," then you'll know that the protecting box is usually an order of magnitude larger than the egg.

Of course, if the egg was also connected to a moving body at least a dozen times heavier and larger than the egg, the successful egg drop boxes wouldn't work at all.

But you've illustrated the fundamental problem with this line of thought, accidentally:
There is not a problem of fractured skulls in football. The problem solved by some perfect helmet is not to prevent the eggshell (skull) from breaking. It is to prevent the egg yolk and egg white from moving too quickly relative to the shell.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 9:13 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the real solution here is to make the brain not move at all. That can only be accomplished by externalizing it from the body.
Maybe we can sever players' brains from their spinal columns, extract them from the skull and place them in jars. Then we reconnect the various nerve bundles via wifi and fill the interior of the skulls with construction spray foam.
Problem solved!
posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:24 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


There is not a problem of fractured skulls in football.

Exactly. Bolding that out.

The original reason for the helmet was, in fact, to prevent skull fractures -- but then other injuries started to occur, and the helmet was tasked to prevent those as well. The problem is that we are protecting against acute injury, but quite probably exacerbating chronic injury.
posted by eriko at 9:40 AM on February 14, 2012


But you've illustrated the fundamental problem with this line of thought, accidentally:
There is not a problem of fractured skulls in football. The problem solved by some perfect helmet is not to prevent the eggshell (skull) from breaking. It is to prevent the egg yolk and egg white from moving too quickly relative to the shell.


Are you actually reading what I'm writing? I agree with you. But carry on arguing with yourself by all mean.
posted by howfar at 1:43 PM on February 14, 2012


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