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Frontline's "League of Denial:The NFL'S Concussion Crisis" Airs
October 14, 2013 7:56 AM   Subscribe

The much-anticipated Frontline documentary "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis" premiered on PBS last week. In August, ESPN pulled out of the project, reportedly due to pressure from the NFL (as previously discussed on MetaFilter here), while the NFL itself only days later announced a $765m settlement with over 4500 former players for claims of concussion-related disability. Reaction to the Frontline program was unsurprisingly mixed from factions involved with the issue, but generally well-received by journalists and TV critics.

As usual, the Frontline website offers lots of supplemental information and footage not included in the broadcast:
  • Transcript of a live chat with Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, authors of the book League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth, producer Mike Wiser, and Garrett Webster, son of the Pittsburgh Steelers' 'Iron Mike' Webster.
  • Interviews with doctors (including Bennett Omalu, who examined Mike Webster and discovered CTE), players (including the 49'ers Steve Young, but don't miss the insightful Harry Carson), families (including Sydney Seau, daughter of the late Junior Seau), and activists (including Chris Nowinski, former Harvard football player and former profession wrestler).
  • A timeline of the NFL and concussions   • Slideshow explaining CTE and its effects on the brain   • Concussion Watch, which tracks reported NFL concussions over two seasons in detail.
posted by briank (128 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks briank. From what I read online, the NFL is made out to be an horrible organization.
posted by KaizenSoze at 8:00 AM on October 14, 2013


So it's accurate, then?
posted by koeselitz at 8:01 AM on October 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


This was pretty great (typically, it is Frontline...). Really worth watching. I'm not a football fan at all, but it left me wondering how the hell they were going to be able to carry on as before.
posted by nevercalm at 8:16 AM on October 14, 2013


Beat me to the punch!! :)

Excellent post, thank you.
posted by zarq at 8:18 AM on October 14, 2013


The Concussion Watch link isn't up to date because Detroit's TE Tony Scheffler and RB Theo Riddick both missed this week's game. Right now it stands as "no missed games". Maybe they update it after week 6 is in the books after the Monday night game.
posted by morganannie at 8:21 AM on October 14, 2013


Mrs. Jeffamaphone and I watched it when it aired. What I'm curious about is how high school and college football will be able to carry on as before.
posted by jeffamaphone at 8:21 AM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Apologies if I missed in TFA but are there some practical changes that the NFL (and by extension club/school leagues) can institute to improve the situation? If not my gut says there is simply too much money and hubris in the sport to expect changes but I can hold out hope.
posted by dgran at 8:23 AM on October 14, 2013


Also, 2012 really ought to list Jahvid Best. His story was very interesting to follow.
posted by morganannie at 8:24 AM on October 14, 2013


New NFL rules designed to limit head injuries.

FTA: "The reworded rules prohibit a player from launching himself off the ground and using his helmet to strike a player in a defenseless posture in the head or neck. The old rule only applied to receivers getting hit, but now it will apply to everyone."

Article is from 2010. Not sure it's working.
posted by morganannie at 8:26 AM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Per Mother Jones: America's Newest Culture War : Football
posted by newdaddy at 8:26 AM on October 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


Caught most of this when it aired and it is really damning. I've been conflicted about being a football fan for a while now, but I've decided that I am going to pull back a bit. This is my last year for fantasy football, for sure.

Watching the extended Steve Young interview now. I've always liked him - he's so smart and thoughtful. I really recommend even non-football fans to watch his full interview.
posted by misskaz at 8:27 AM on October 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I actually think there's a lot of rule and technique stuff they can do to reduce the number and severity of blows to the head. The big problem nowadays is that helmets don't really protect against concussion - they protect the surface of the skull but can't do anything about the acceleration of the brain into the cranium. So new equipment is not likely to be the answer; fundamental changes in blocking and tackling techniques are called for.

And to be honest, in the old days, the coach would bench you for not 'wrapping' a player, i.e. get your arms around him and wrestle him down, if need be. A lot of guys go for these big hits, and if you mess up the player escapes and scores. So, if you play football, on defense, head up, wrap the ball carrier, and you will be a better tackler and maybe somewhat less likely to get a concussion.
posted by Mister_A at 8:28 AM on October 14, 2013 [10 favorites]


Thanks for posting this. Junior Seau, to my understanding, is the most damning example that the NFL has to deal with. Almost 20 full years in the NFL. No concussions acknowledged by him or the team...after Seau committed suicide, the NFL talked Seau's son out of letting Omalu do the brain study. Pretty damning.

Hopping on my soapbox. Kill the age of specialization. Bring on the age of generalization! Blind draw position playing. You field 11 players and draw blindly on who will play where. This way, only the most excellent generalists will be paid top dollar. You decrease the speed of the game for a good while while adding a new element. For example, you'd like to have 400 pound player in your mix...great....maybe he is playing quarterback, or kicking. You have to bring down the size of the players to make sure that you can cover all positions equally well. That means hits that are less hard.
posted by zerobyproxy at 8:29 AM on October 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


It's easy for a fan to be dismissive of this on the grounds that these are adults who have chosen a career that is moderately dangerous but which lets them retire as millionaires at a young age when there are lots of way more dangerous professions out there that don't give their practitioners that option.

The problem with this is that for every player that actually makes it to the NFL there are lots and lots who don't. Every college in the country has a football team, and only a very small percentage of the players make it to an NFL career. And the training for an NFL career starts in middle school. If someone wants to take up construction, for example, they're not going to be put in the thick of it until after high school at the earliest, and even then they're not likely to have the really dangerous stuff until they've been on the job a couple of years. So we're basically passing down a message to the kids that hey, take a beating now, you might end up the next NFL superstar without actually being clear to them about what the odds of that happening really are. And that's what really bothers me about findings that professional football can be a dangerous game.
posted by Runes at 8:35 AM on October 14, 2013 [27 favorites]


No padding whatsoever.

It's the only way the game can continue without massive head injuries. It keeps the macho, "tough guy" element, doesn't depend on wacky rule changes that try to get people to "hit softly", and basically turns the process of head butting someone into a bad idea for all parties involved. Rubgy still has concussions, but far, far, far fewer. It will change the nature of the game, but I think it will ultimately result in a more interesting, dynamic, and less dangerous sport.
posted by Freen at 8:35 AM on October 14, 2013 [36 favorites]


My impression of glancing at ESPN closed captioning from my book over lunch hour is that a story isn't really newsworthy for them unless:

1. Someone got caught diddling someone else.
2. Big-name team gets sanctions.
3. Butt-fumble.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:38 AM on October 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


are there decent comparison charts on concussions rates in American Football and sports like Rugby and that odd thing called Austrian Rules football?
posted by edgeways at 8:38 AM on October 14, 2013


Esterbrook was on this a few years ago. Time to ditch the tough-guy hard helmets and move to "conehead" designs, where the outside is padded as well. This removes the helmet as a weapon, while also increasing the effect of cushioning the blow every time an inadvertent helmet-to-helmet hit happens, giving the skull more room to decelerate.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:39 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Freen, your idea would turn the game into Rugby with more set pieces and forward passing. How fucking great would that be?
posted by Mister_A at 8:41 AM on October 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Moment to watch for: Dr. Ann McKee discusses the noticeably sexist tone with which the all-male NFL group treated her when she presented her findings to them. Then they show some NFL guy (sorry, forgot his name) who attempts to deny there was any sexism going on, but in trying to deny it he is unable to speak in complete sentences. He's all "no there wasn't...I mean...it was just...we weren't being like..."
posted by dnash at 8:42 AM on October 14, 2013 [16 favorites]


Yay, go medicine! The amount of research coming out in the last 5 years on this issue has completely changed my thoughts and perception on football. I'm a physician, and a father of two boys and there is just no way I would allow them to play football at this point. I realize parents have been saying this for decades now about football, but the head injury thing is new, it's devastating, and we don't really know how to completely mitigate the risk. My experience with high schools and colleges is that at least on paper they take concussion guidelines very seriously, so maybe there's data coming that will show there's a way to play football that falls under my safety threshold, but then again maybe there isn't. But the way the NFL has confronted this, combined with the increasing frequency of hard hits in play, and the bias of young men who think they're invincible and underreport their symptoms so they can play, and the coaches who just want to win and don't give a shit about their players' IQ test 10 years later -- forget it, I'll let my kids take their chances on basketball and soccer. interestingly there are far more head injuries associated with soccer in the US, but this reflects its popularity, the overall rate is much lower

I had a twelve year old a couple weeks ago who had 5 minute loss of consciousness on the field during a Pop Warner practice. There was no medical evaluation and he finished practice. He was brought to me because he'd been irritable all week. The kid was surprised that not only did I think he shouldn't play or even practice right now, but that he should probably be taken out of school. He and his family spent the rest of the visit scheming to figure out how they could keep him out of practice for the required interval without telling the coach it was because of his injury. He was worried he wouldn't get played the rest of the season. Now what kind of sport has a twelve year old conspiring with his parents to err on the side on long term cognitive disability?
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:45 AM on October 14, 2013 [52 favorites]


From the CBS link:

“If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport,” that doctor told Omalu, “that is the end of football.”

Surely 10% already do, right? I mean, maybe he meant an incremental 10%, but I think the link between playing organized football as a kid and being an NFL fan as an adult is probably not that strong. If it worked that way, major league soccer would be a lot more popular by now, right?

And if the idea is that a smaller talent pool would make the NFL less popular, then I really don't buy that. The entertainment value mostly comes from evenly matched teams, and they do a better job of that than most other pro sports. And as long as there's entertainment value there's enough money to get bodies on the field, however dangerous the game is. If the next Tom Brady never picks up a football because his parents won't let him, we'll get someone almost as good and never know the difference. As in most team sports, skill is pretty much relative.

So unfortunately, I suspect that the only way this really hurts the league long term is by viscerally turning off fans who better understand the brutality of what's going on. But is there much precedent for that? I mean boxing lost popularity because of corruption not brutality right?

Kill the age of specialization. Bring on the age of generalization! Blind draw position playing. You field 11 players and draw blindly on who will play where. This way, only the most excellent generalists will be paid top dollar.

I love this idea, it's the only one I've heard that would actually get me watching again.
posted by pete_22 at 8:46 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hey now, let's not sully the good name of butt fumble in this. ESPN is dumb, but butt fumble is a moment of timeless beauty.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:48 AM on October 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


Re: rugby. I'll cop to not being a sports fan to any great degree. Not that I hate it, but eh. Sometimes I may watch a football game, and while I understand it, it doesn't tremendously excite me. There are rugby games though I'll catch on TV (and sometimes hockey, but I'm originally from Canada so I guess that's to be expected), especially when traveling (say in NZ) that I love watching even though i have no regional connection to the game whatsoever, and I'll seek out some RWC games, especially the final, online. Something I'd never do with football, which seems so... slow and over-formulated and over-produced.

Only piece of sports merch I have is an All Blacks hat.
posted by edgeways at 8:48 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Moment to watch for: Dr. Ann McKee discusses the noticeably sexist tone with which the all-male NFL group treated her when she presented her findings to them. Then they show some NFL guy (sorry, forgot his name) who attempts to deny there was any sexism going on, but in trying to deny it he is unable to speak in complete sentences. He's all "no there wasn't...I mean...it was just...we weren't being like..."

He used the standard sexist 'tone' attack as well.
posted by srboisvert at 8:51 AM on October 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


dnash, that was one of the most infuriating parts of the documentary for me to watch. It seemed so obvious that the the NFL representative was trying very hard not to back himself into a corner, but also wanting to convey that he felt the room really had a problem with her tone. I could almost hear the word "bitch" lingering in the air, I swear it.

This was matched only by the moment earlier when Dr. Omalu mentioned that the word "voodoo" had come up in condemnations of him as a medical professional. Horrifying.

The comparisons to big tobacco made themselves obvious left and right. No wonder the NFL backed out. This was an excellent piece of journalism.
posted by juliplease at 8:51 AM on October 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


All sports are dangerous! You have to balance the risks of injury against the risks of inactivity, which are pretty great. I let my kids do all kinds of "dangerous" stuff in the name of encouraging their love of movement and play. But neither of my children -- I have a 7 year old daughter and a nearly 3 year old son -- will ever, ever, EVER play football. Nothing is worth those risks.
posted by KathrynT at 8:52 AM on October 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Freen: No padding whatsoever.

Relevant self-link.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:52 AM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I thought the most provocative aspect of the show was the emerging evidence that low grade "run of the mill" hits over a relatively short time (like after 4 years of high school football) might also cause long term brain damage in some kids. If that proves to be true through more research, then high school football would need to change radically or be shutdown....and then the same thing would have to happen at the college level....and then.......

And this is exactly why nothing will change. NFL is a big part of our culture and it is a big business. Thus, despite the evidence and its own rule changes and that settled lawsuit, the NFL still claims that there is no evidence linking repeated hits to the head with brain injury. They are indeed acting like the tobacco companies.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:52 AM on October 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


My impression of glancing at ESPN closed captioning from my book over lunch hour is that a story isn't really newsworthy for them unless:

1. Someone got caught diddling someone else.
2. Big-name team gets sanctions.
3. Butt-fumble.


0. TEEEEBOW!!!!
posted by dudemanlives at 8:53 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


are there some practical changes that the NFL (and by extension club/school leagues) can institute to improve the situation?

Well they at least could provide post-career health care for longer than 5 years. But then I am not sure they could call it "America's game".
posted by srboisvert at 8:53 AM on October 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Wow, this statement from Bill Belichick (Patriots coach, from the NFL Players Respond link) is just appalling:
"First of all, I’m not really familiar with whatever it is you’re referring to, whatever this thing is. But it doesn’t make any difference whether there is or isn’t one going on."
Paraphrase: "I have chosen to remain ignorant, therefore it is not important."
posted by KathrynT at 8:56 AM on October 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


That Seau, and other NFLers, have committed suicide with deliberation enough to shoot themselves in the chest so there brains could be examined tells you A LOT. Not only about Seau's understanding of how he got to that point, but the powerlessness he felt in being able to speak up about what happened to him.

I consider myself a pretty big sports fan in general, but I can't watch the NFL anymore and this is why.
posted by dry white toast at 8:56 AM on October 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Good article about William (The Fridge) Perry. think it has been on Mefi before. Kind of a classic study of the aftereffects of the NFL
posted by edgeways at 9:02 AM on October 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


0. TEEEEBOW!!!!

Well, I consider Tebow to be in the same category as the butt-fumble, a "story" that largely consists of ESPN's analysis of ESPN's coverage of ESPN's social media repeatedly asking whether anyone outside of the ESPN newsroom really cares.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:02 AM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


silly nerds...nothing will keep us from our faux-combat glory.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:05 AM on October 14, 2013


My nightmare scenario, which I think is already coming to pass, is that well-informed, relatively wealthy, other-opportunity-availing parents will decide that their children should not play football for safety reasons. Children with fewer paths to life success and less involved or informed parents will continue to play football because it represents an opportunity that is otherwise unavailable to them in America right now. The football industry will remain intact and the game mostly unchanged, but the players will be drawn almost exclusively from our permanent (mostly minority) underclass.

The upper and middle class, no longer having skin in the game, will not pressure the football industry to make changes regarding player safety. The players, grateful for the opportunity and in love with the myths of the game, won't effectively advocate for themselves. We will create a class of gladiators drawn from the poorest among us, destroying themselves for our entertainment. It's unconscionable.

It's also not unlike today's military.
posted by GodricVT at 9:09 AM on October 14, 2013 [54 favorites]


GodricVT: "My nightmare scenario, which I think is already coming to pass, is that well-informed, relatively wealthy, other-opportunity-availing parents will decide that their children should not play football for safety reasons. Children with fewer paths to life success and less involved or informed parents will continue to play football because it represents an opportunity that is otherwise unavailable to them in America right now. The football industry will remain intact and the game mostly unchanged, but the players will be drawn almost exclusively from our permanent (mostly minority) underclass.

The upper and middle class, no longer having skin in the game, will not pressure the football industry to make changes regarding player safety. The players, grateful for the opportunity and in love with the myths of the game, won't effectively advocate for themselves. We will create a class of gladiators drawn from the poorest among us, destroying themselves for our entertainment. It's unconscionable.

It's also not unlike today's military.
"


I think that's a pretty good summation of how it currently works.
posted by double block and bleed at 9:13 AM on October 14, 2013 [29 favorites]


I think we're basically there already, as for the socio-economic profile of the players who aspire to the game.
posted by thelonius at 9:13 AM on October 14, 2013


silly nerds...nothing will keep us from our faux-combat glory.

And that's why my semi-regular Blood Bowl league has basically replaced NFL as My One True Football. If somebody has to suffer career-ending maimings and deaths, let it be imaginary orcs and dwarves and goblins and things, who only ever existed in a database.
posted by Strange Interlude at 9:13 AM on October 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I love football. I grew up cheering for my heros that played on Sundays. I played football from about 4th grade through high school as a middle linebacker. I hit things with my head, but I don't recall being dramatically concussed. I ruined my knee playing football, and that is why I stopped. Since then, I have consistently watched football and cheered for teams. For as long as I can remember, football has been a part of my life. Given my support, I am likely the kind of guy who 20 years ago would have had his son playing football from the time he could walk.

A couple of years ago, I first read about CTE and the concussion thing. Then I got a couple different calls to represent a people in the concussion MDL cases. I learned quite a bit a more. I took the deposition of an NFL team neurosurgeon. And I watched this program with great interest, and I learned even more.

Given what I now know about concussions, there is no way I will allow my son to play football. At a young age, the dangers of concussion are worse, and they have found CTE in 18 year olds from high school football. It's just not worth the risk. And, what's more, it actually has caused me to enjoy watching football less. When a game is on, I get the feeling that this can't continue; that the NFL will be dramatically different in 5 years and likely gone at some point. And I'm not sure that I will miss it.
posted by dios at 9:18 AM on October 14, 2013 [21 favorites]


I think we're basically there already, as for the socio-economic profile of the players who aspire to the game.

I'm not sure about that, would love to see a study. I went to a middle to upper class private boys high school and football was as big as it was at any public school. (And in my pretty well off area, the local public high school was a football powerhouse for a long time too.)
posted by Drinky Die at 9:18 AM on October 14, 2013


It's also not unlike today's military.

It's funny you mention that, because the Department of Defense is far and away the biggest funding source for research on traumatic brain injury right now. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced huge numbers of vets suffering long-term complications from TBI. Ironically, improvements in body armor have made this a much bigger problem than in previous wars, because soldiers are now surviving blasts that previously would have been fatal.

Unlike the NFL, the DoD is taking this problem pretty seriously.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:22 AM on October 14, 2013 [18 favorites]


Kill the age of specialization. Bring on the age of generalization! Blind draw position playing. You field 11 players and draw blindly on who will play where. This way, only the most excellent generalists will be paid top dollar. You decrease the speed of the game for a good while while adding a new element. For example, you'd like to have 400 pound player in your mix...great....maybe he is playing quarterback, or kicking. You have to bring down the size of the players to make sure that you can cover all positions equally well. That means hits that are less hard.

While this idea has a certain appeal to it, I'm not sure it would actually help the concussion problem. Virtually all of the most visible victims of CTE so far are exactly the sort of mid-sized (by NFL standards) guys who blend speed and strength that you'd be selecting for. The guys committing suicide are linebackers and wide receivers, not 400-pound linemen or bowling-ball running backs, and, to boot, they're the kind of guys who mostly go up against similarly-sized people, so I think a league without the tiny speedsters and giant linemen might even be worse in terms of concussions.
posted by Copronymus at 9:23 AM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think we're basically there already, as for the socio-economic profile of the players who aspire to the game.
posted by thelonius at 11:13 AM on October 14


Godrick makes a good point, and I disagree that we are basically there. Football is still big in the affluent suburbs. At least where I live in Dallas, there are really affluent areas where football is king (e.g., the Lions QB Matthew Stafford came from the most affluent area Highland Park). I think that is going to change. And Godrick's image is a bleak future, but one I can see very easily happening around here.
posted by dios at 9:25 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


That William Perry article is heartbreaking. I don't think the poor guy has much more time.
posted by thelonius at 9:25 AM on October 14, 2013


(Still hoping that when football's bubble bursts, one one-hundredth of their fan base will come out for a drum corps competition.)
posted by newdaddy at 9:27 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I went to a middle to upper class private boys high school and football was as big as it was at any public school.

Football is still big in the affluent suburbs.

Absolutely. Football is part of our culture. But those upper class boys from the prep school or the affluent kids from the burbs are probably not seeing football as a career path. For them, it is just a fun time on the field before they head to Wall Street or some other lucrative enterprise. But those young men from very poor areas who get picked up by some big NCAA Division I team see their future potential quite differently I suspect.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:28 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The sports hero coming from poor background is a cultural stereotype, which is surely influencing my thinking. It would be interesting to know, I agree - someone must have studied this.
posted by thelonius at 9:28 AM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


“If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport,” that doctor told Omalu, “that is the end of football.”

Surely 10% already do, right?


It'll take 10% of Football Moms, not the ones who already don't let their kids play. That's a tougher crowd to crack.

I've never cared for football, so it can end tomorrow and I don't give a shit. I gave up all support for hockey a couple of years ago, which sucked a little but I feel like a less horrible person for it. I'm reaching the point where I'm a little startled by hipster kids in hockey and football onesies, but I keep my opinion to myself about it.

the DoD is taking this problem pretty seriously

The DoD may be, but the VA and every other aspect of support infrastructure sure seems to be struggling.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:33 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think, and have said in these threads before, that this is the end of football as a major sport. The NFL will continue to do a lot of horrible things to cover up or minimize perceptions of the problem, and some people will be fooled, but insurance companies will not.

Once liability insurance costs adjust to the latest research on CTE and other traumatic brain injuries caused by playing football, I do not think that any schools or youth leagues will be able to afford them, not even Division I NCAA schools. College football has the worst scenario here, as those young men are volunteers putting their long-term health at considerable risk, so it has both a huge insurance concern and a huge PR concern. And then the NFL loses its comprehensive, free-to-them farm-team training system.

I quit watching football two years ago bc of all this, and surprisingly have not missed it much.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:34 AM on October 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


I think the best way to start the change, assuming that there can be one, is to eliminate pads and helmets in pee-wee, grade school, and middle school football. Light pads and still no helmets in high school. This way the athletes can learn the fundamentals of the game in a way that doesn't reward using the head as a weapon.
I too would be interested to see some stats from rugby and Aussie rules to compare the concussion rates.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:35 AM on October 14, 2013


I remember reading about a study of NBA players that found that they were more likely to be upper or middle class. It makes sense, to me, because money can buy things like a better diet, sports camps and training programs, and equipment to participate in youth sports. I think the story of the poor kid who makes it by excelling at sports is the exception, not the rule. It's a nice story though so we like telling it to ourselves.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:38 AM on October 14, 2013


Eh, much easier to just move to another sport. Last time I checked, there are 5 times as many kids enrolled in youth soccer than in all other sports combined, and HS varsity soccer participation among boys and girls has risen to about 50% of the rate in varsity football.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:38 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]



It's probably not the most representative of audiences, but I caught some of the Intelligence^2 debate on banning college football, and I was surprised to see the votes shift from only 16% in favor of such a ban to 53%.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 9:42 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


All sports are dangerous!

Not all sports are equally dangerous. If you're looking for some violent smash-mouth action that doesn't lead to many concussions try roller derby. No joke. I came expecting that a sport where athletes competing under names like Ivana Smackya could only be appreciated ironically. I was wrong. At high skill levels it's intensely violent. What cuts down on concussions is that the players are moving in parallel. No smashing head-on into each other, and no smashing each other into the boards as in hockey. There are no boards. Players who get hit hard go flying but their brains don't come to a sudden stop against another player or a wall. There's still a moderately high risk of injury but bruises and sprains heal.

In Vancouver and other cities, there's a kids/teens league starting. Just sayin', parents of metafilter.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:45 AM on October 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Not all sports are equally dangerous.

Yeah, I know, that's part of my point -- that even parents who are willing to accept a lot of risk in exchange for the personal and physical development that comes through sport would be wise to look elsewhere than football. We have actually looked into junior roller derby for my daughter, who is, ah, temperamentally suited for the sport.
posted by KathrynT at 9:46 AM on October 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Joining the rest of the world in its appreciation for futbol has a certain appeal.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:48 AM on October 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Football is actually a big deal for the upper middle class.

Not only is it huge in their schools, it's also fantastically more advantageous for college admission than any other sport. The east coast liberal arts schools, the Ivy League, and several other great schools (Duke, Georgetown) etc. all reserve dozens of admission spots in every class for football players, multiples more than for any other sport, and you don't need to be nearly as good, either. A recruited lacrosse or tennis player at one of those schools will be very, very good ... a recruited football player only needs to be a moderate prep standout (Stanford and Northwestern aside).
posted by MattD at 9:50 AM on October 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


The DoD may be, but the VA and every other aspect of support infrastructure sure seems to be struggling.

Agreed 100%. The VA system is suffering from some major systemic rot that is decades in the making. I don't see that changing anytime soon. As for the research side of things, I think we've already passed the peak of near-term progress. Given current funding trends, the nonprofit research sector is in for a pretty dark decade.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:51 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I thought the documentary League of Denial was very compelling but the science was weak.

There was no process of science demonstrated. No control group. No attempts at explaining causation. The BU brain bank has looked at a whopping 24 brains to date. It seemed like the process of science went like "hey, we found something crazy. OMG we found it again!" It didn't address the similarities/differences between other brain disorders, how tau is different from amyloid protein, how this looks compared to Alzheimer's. No discussion of the differences between different kinds of hits - concussive hits and sub-concussive hits, head-on versus swerving impact (I think that a swerving hit is generally worse than a head-on impact but I don't know why).

No discussion of prevention, helmets, sensors. No history of the sport - guys used to die on the field playing without helmets. I thought that the league did make changes to reduce the likelihood of concussive hits (moving the line of scrimmage?) but that was barely mentioned. No mention of the cognitive tests used to diagnose concussion or how concussions are diagnosed at all.

I was excited about this documentary and looking forward to it. I might buy the book. But it functioned way better as a (deserved!) hit piece on the NFL. If this wasn't supposed to be a hit piece on the NFL, it would have mentioned the head injuries that occur in hockey, soccer and cheerleading.

I'm also reminded of how Neil deGrasse Tyson said that with Gravity, the fact that he was criticizing the science spoke well for the movie and that holds here. This was a very compelling program with great interviews and anecdotes. The interviews with Chris Nowinski, in my opinion, were the most compelling. But the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data.
posted by kat518 at 9:55 AM on October 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


are there some practical changes that the NFL (and by extension club/school leagues) can institute to improve the situation? If not my gut says there is simply too much money and hubris in the sport to expect changes but I can hold out hope.

At the press conference with television critics in July/August, I actually asked this question, in almost these words. Basically, what they said was that where they're looking for this to change anything is at the level of parents and grandparents not getting their kids involved in football. They're under no illusions that they're going to shut down the NFL or get any major changes made in something so drowned in money, it seemed to me. And while the absence of pads to reduce force makes some sense, that ain't happening. And improvements in helmet technology basically do nothing for this problem. Helmets are for skull fractures, not concussions.

What they're hoping, they said, is that in time, parents will come to consider this something -- like drunk driving or tanning or something like that -- that you just wouldn't, as a responsible parent, have your kid out there doing. I don't think they believe that will be the case with all parents, but in time, you can perhaps imagine a shift in which sports are most popular, particularly in the very young.

But I don't think they're in any way running around with the belief that this has an evident solution that has any chance of actually happening any time soon. If memory serves, one of the guys at the press conference was a former NFL player who basically said, "I told my daughter that as to my grandson, he could play lots of sports, but absolutely no football." That's where they're going. To parents, not regulators or fans.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 10:01 AM on October 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


This is already beginning to seep down, unevenly, to the college level. I don't watch pro sports but I am a fan of college football, specifically the University of Texas, my alma mater. Our starting quarterback David Ash received a concussion on September 7th against BYU. He attempted to return against Kansas State several weeks later but was pulled at halftime and has not played since. This article outlines the precautions being taking but also mentions there is, as of yet, no NCAA standard for treatment and possible return to play, if ever...
posted by jim in austin at 10:05 AM on October 14, 2013


This is a slight derail, but I dig Chris Nowinski. The fact that he lives with the specter of CTE himself but challenges the NFL, (oh wait, the are they preferred brain bank now! :\)...it makes me feel all the feels. Mostly respect.
posted by oflinkey at 10:07 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I coach youth soccer, currently eight year olds. We don't even do heading for concussion potential parental complaint reasons. The only thing I ever say about heading the ball is, "have the ball hit your forehead, not the top of your head". We don't practice it, nor will I encourage it. Once they get a bit older, we will likely have to, just so they know how to do the right thing. And yet, there are football teams for kids this young...

So no way for my kids, nor any but a couple of kids in my kids class. But, Washington isn't Texas or Alabama.
posted by Windopaene at 10:09 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Freen, I love the idea of no padding, and having known a bunch of hobbyist rugby players (male & female) I get the comparison -- but I think it's important to remember that as killer a rep as rugby has, what it doesn't have is billions of sponsorship $$.

Plus, most of the rugby folks I've known were actually pretty sharp and were adults with an appreciation for the value of their brains and bodies. The NFL is utterly dependent on its players maintaining a thoroughly adolescant attitude toward their bodies and health into their premature middle age. I shudder to think about NFL-class football played with no pads but with the NFL ethos intact.
posted by lodurr at 10:12 AM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


As to the fine specimen who kept shiftily not looking at the camera and babbling as he discredited Ann McKee's evidence, that guy was Henry Feuer, M.D., FACS, concussion and spine disorders specialist, member of the incredibly-named NFL Subcommittee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries from 1994-2010, and former neurological consultant to the Indianapolis Colts.
posted by blucevalo at 10:12 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think getting rid of helmets is the solution. I certainly understand the idea that hitting with the helmet likely leads to more concussions (to the guy getting hit, but also the guy doing the hitting).

But the helmet is also a protective device. There a lot of concussions and other injuries from a player falling and having his head it the ground (and having played on astroturf back in the day, it really is like falling on cement). Or having some other player accidentally knee them in the head at the end of a play. Getting rid of the helmets make those kinds of plays much, much more dangerous. So while it might reduce the "leading with the helmet" type hits, it opens players up for lots of other injuries with their naked heads banging into the ground and other body parts.

but the science was weak.

I'm not an expert on science or scientific method. I do on occasion come across issues in my practice where you have a clinician and a scientist testifying about different conclusions. The scientist takes the position that if something cannot be objectively proven, then it has not been established. The clinician takes the position that something can be relied upon because it is the reasonable, probable explanation and fits (walks like a duck, quacks like a duck). The "in all reasonable probability" test is all the law requires. And, when it comes to whether I should expose my child to the danger, that's all I require as well. From what I know at this point, there is something close to a consensus that "in all reasonable probability" frequent hits to the head and severe concussive hits can cause permanent brain injury. That's all I need to know. That's all the league needs to know. There is no moral or legal defense to ignore the issue until it proven with certainty by Science(!).
posted by dios at 10:15 AM on October 14, 2013 [13 favorites]


I think the best way to start the change, assuming that there can be one, is to eliminate pads and helmets in pee-wee, grade school, and middle school football. Light pads and still no helmets in high school. This way the athletes can learn the fundamentals of the game in a way that doesn't reward using the head as a weapon.

What i got from the doc and the other stuff I've read about this is that it's not simply a question of eliminating big hits, or blindside hits, or spear tackles. It's all the little hits you take that add up and up and up. Your brain bouncing of the inside of your skull a hundred times at five miles an hour is just as bad if not worse than it getting whiplashed once. Football itself is the problem, full stop. There is no way to play full contact tackle football that will not result in players hitting each other and the ground dozens of times a game in a way that can create long term impairments.
posted by Diablevert at 10:17 AM on October 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Coming up next week: House Republicans tie extending the debt limit to defunding PBS and destroying every copy of League of Denial. This will have nothing at all to do with sudden major donations by the NFL to GOP lawmakers.
posted by happyroach at 10:20 AM on October 14, 2013


MattD's comments about the college admissions preferences for football make me wonder if the college level is where any reform movement should be targeted. School pride should not equal brain damaged students, and the competitive logic of college admissions creates an incentive for high school players to play through injuries, lest they stop seeming appealing to college coaches.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:33 AM on October 14, 2013


There was no process of science demonstrated. No control group. No attempts at explaining causation.

I haven't seen the documentary myself, so I cannot comment on it directly, but I used to be involved in TBI research. I can confirm that there is solid data showing pathological similarities between TBI and Alzheimer's disease. I worked primarily on the animal side of things; this has the advantage of allowing for controlled experiments, but the disadvantage that one is never sure how well the results translate to humans. Make of that what you will.

Mice exposed to brain damage show the same sort of amyloidosis and tauopathy as our common mouse models for Alzheimer's, and this correlates with severity/repetition of injury as well as with marked behavioral deficits. In both cases, the APOE4 allele seems to mediate particular vulnerability. On a transcription level, many of the same inflammatory cascades seem to be involved. Granted, we still know a whole lot of nothing about Alzheimer's disease (it's the fusion energy of the biomedical world—we're 10 years from a cure, and always will be). Nonetheless, the relationship between TBI and Alzheimer's is based on more than just conjecture.
posted by dephlogisticated at 10:36 AM on October 14, 2013 [14 favorites]


dios: There a lot of concussions and other injuries from a player falling and having his head it the ground (and having played on astroturf back in the day, it really is like falling on cement).

I don't know if you've ever been on a new Field-Turf type field, but it is a much different beast. The "dirt" that the "grass" is embedded in is basically tiny rubber pellets, so it is quite springy. I think the real benefit of removing the helmet/hard pads is that it will (theoretically) make the players slow down and play more conservatively when they don't have the (false) protection of the padding. Who knows if it would work in reality, but it seems worth a try, to me at least.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:38 AM on October 14, 2013


guys used to die on the field playing without helmets.

This has happened exactly one time, and it was since the advent of helmets.

granted - NFL only
posted by IvoShandor at 10:45 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you're looking for some violent smash-mouth action that doesn't lead to many concussions try roller derby. No joke. I came expecting that a sport where athletes competing under names like Ivana Smackya could only be appreciated ironically. I was wrong. At high skill levels it's intensely violent. What cuts down on concussions is that the players are moving in parallel. No smashing head-on into each other, and no smashing each other into the boards as in hockey. There are no boards. Players who get hit hard go flying but their brains don't come to a sudden stop against another player or a wall. There's still a moderately high risk of injury but bruises and sprains heal.

Even though concussions don't happen that often in derby, our derby league is taking concussions very seriously.

- We've had several doctors come speak to our league about what exactly happens when you get a concussion, the best ways to recover from one, etc.

- Every person in our league who is on skates (players, referees, coaches) took a base-line concussion test, administered by our two league EMTs. If one of us is suspected of getting a concussion, that test will be readministered (being asked to repeat a series of numbers and words, given a list of colors that are printed in different colored in than the word, and being told to give the color of the word, etc.) and the test times will be compared. If the times are different beyond a certain percentage of error, your skates come off and you do not skate again until you've been checked out by a doctor and you can replicate your baseline scores.

- Skaters are switching from skateboarding helmets to hockey helmets.
posted by Lucinda at 10:50 AM on October 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


spamandkimchi: "MattD's comments about the college admissions preferences for football make me wonder if the college level is where any reform movement should be targeted. School pride should not equal brain damaged students, and the competitive logic of college admissions creates an incentive for high school players to play through injuries, lest they stop seeming appealing to college coaches."

Given the non-outcome of the Penn State tragedy, I wouldn't place too much hope here.
posted by schmod at 10:51 AM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Rubgy still has concussions, but far, far, far fewer. It will change the nature of the game, but I think it will ultimately result in a more interesting, dynamic, and less dangerous sport.

Rugby doesn't start from scrimmage a yard apart. That, right there, is the single biggest difference in the forces. When you scrum in rugby, everyone's already locked into place and just pushes. When you snap in football, everyone gets a yard to build up speed.

Basically, you cannot take the forces out of gridiron football without getting rid of plays from scrimmage -- basically, without the defining element of gridiron football.
posted by eriko at 10:52 AM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Unlike the NFL, the DoD is taking this problem pretty seriously.

Unlike the NFL, the DoD has to take care of its veterans.
posted by eriko at 10:52 AM on October 14, 2013 [10 favorites]


Mister_A: "Freen, your idea would turn the game into Rugby with more set pieces and forward passing. How fucking great would that be?"

Every time somebody complains about the potential for Football to be "ruined" by making the rules more rugby-like should be forced to sit down and watch a rugby game.

Bad rugby is more exciting and compelling to watch than good football.

Who cares if we get rid of the defining element of gridiron football? It kills players, and makes the game boring. If the NFL turned into a rugby league, the sport would be much, much more interesting to watch. Hell, you could even manage to have more than 10 games a season, because you wouldn't need to worry about injuring/disabling all of your players before the season ended. I'm sure the owners would like that.
posted by schmod at 10:56 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you're looking for some violent smash-mouth action that doesn't lead to many concussions try roller derby

I would *in no way* make that assertion. Roller derby is a very young sport, it is still very small compared to football in the US, and I don't see any short or long term studies about roller derby injuries.

And, if I were a roller derby organization, I would be commissioning those studies *right fucking now*. The NFL has the billions to hush this up. They don't.

I wouldn't be surprised if this was true. But the players are on wheels. A fast flip and you have a five foot lever arm driving your skull into a wood floor, backed by concrete. That's an absolute fast-pass to a concussion. So, without real studies, and real protocols in place to see if they are happening, I wouldn't be betting that they aren't.

Also: Those thinking this is limited solely to US Gridiron football have not seen Ice Hockey's concussion rates. You think teeth fall out of mouths by magic?
posted by eriko at 10:58 AM on October 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


guys used to die on the field playing without helmets.

This has happened exactly one time, and it was since the advent of helmets.


In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt browbeat the leaders of college football into institution a number of reforms to make the game less violent, in part because 18 college and amateur players died that season. The reforms included the forward pass and the neutral zone. One could argue that the game being played 100 years ago was so different that it can't bear comparison with modern football. But it was certainly played without anything like today's helmets.
posted by Diablevert at 10:58 AM on October 14, 2013 [10 favorites]


eriko: When you snap in football, everyone gets a yard to build up speed.

Again, I think the idea of removing pads is that the players will not be able to build up such speeds, as they will have to play more carefully and thoughtfully without so much protection. You can argue about whether or not that would actually play out, or if players would be just as aggressive and fast without pads, but it's not "Playing football without pads will automatically be safer" as much as it is "Playing football without pads will force players to play safer" if that makes any sense.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:02 AM on October 14, 2013


A fast flip and you have a five foot lever arm driving your skull into a wood floor, backed by concrete.

Have you seen WFTDA derby?
posted by Lucinda at 11:02 AM on October 14, 2013


Bad rugby is more exciting and compelling to watch than good football.

I disagree with you completely. You like rugby and don't like gridiron football, fine. That was true 10 years ago before this was an issue. Many people, including myself, enjoy watching gridiron football, a surprisingly subtle game caused by the fact that plays start from scrimmage and the offense can plot out a play that the defense has to react to.

We're also horrified by the damage that the game is causing.

As to rugby? Concussion a massive problem for rugby, says players' union manager David Barnes.
posted by eriko at 11:06 AM on October 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


Who cares if we get rid of the defining element of gridiron football? It kills players, and makes the game boring. If the NFL turned into a rugby league, the sport would be much, much more interesting to watch.

The way the game is televised has a lot more to do with why it's boring, I'd say. Rugby's a fine game and I enjoy watching it, but the pleasures of it are very different than American football. Rugby's like soccer, it's a flow game, one of constant movement and improvisation. Football is chess with human pieces --- separate players with separate strengths and weakness, strategically arrayed in various pattern to attempt discrete moves. Football's not entirely without improvisation --- when the pocket collapses or the receivers are covered or there's a fumble. But the pleasure of watching the game is watching different strategies being tried out on each play. It's all about speed and trickery and exploiting weaknesses. Most everything that people like about it would be altered if you take out the line up.
posted by Diablevert at 11:07 AM on October 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm sick of the concussions from headers in soccer. We should just turn it into baseball instead, it's a much more interesting game.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:09 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The end game to this might be that football will just be so expensive at the lowest levels that fewer and fewer schools and youth organizations will be willing to participate in it. The best athletes will play other sports, or won't play sports at all, leading to increased enthusiasm for other sports ahead of NCAA football and the NFL.

But while I can type those words, I just can't possibly actually imagine that happening, even in 50 years.
posted by MoonOrb at 11:10 AM on October 14, 2013


It isn't a crisis until the top rated television show of the year is something besides the Super Bowl. Not now. Not next year. Maybe not for ten years. The football players are our gladiators performing mayhem for our amusement. The highlight videos from the week's games almost always have big hits when I look at those shows. If you go to youtube and search on big hits those videos have hundreds of thousands of views. Making the game safer is public relations. To make the game measurably safer would be a stupid short term business decision. The only uncertainty is what happens first--ruinous lawsuit awards or loss of ratings to a next big thing.
posted by bukvich at 11:15 AM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I mostly find this issue fascinating for what it says about contemporary neo-liberal western society. The NFL as an organization of employers has knowingly savaged it's employees' health in full public view, with multiple replay angles, for decades and gotten away without any punishment at all. Five years after their careers are over these medical cases, be they brain injuries, spinal damage, busted up knees and hips or even steroid side effects are effectively dumped into the publicly subsidized health care system. Even the big 750 Million settlement only results in 178K per player with brain injuries. Automobile insurance companies put aside at least 5 times that much for brain injuries.

Brain injuries are worse of course but we sat back and watched these billionaires chew up the bodies of their employees for decades before brain damage was an issue with barely a concern in the world for the fact that a large number of them would need walkers, knee and hip replacements and a lifetime supply of pain meds.

Maybe they will be better off with Obamacare though since being a former football player will no longer be a pre-existing condition.
posted by srboisvert at 11:26 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I should probably elaborate on my last comment.

A fast flip and you have a five foot lever arm driving your skull into a wood floor, backed by concrete. That's an absolute fast-pass to a concussion.

The vast majority of roller derby being played today is on a flat surface. No rails to flip over. No "driving your skull" into a floor. (The majority of floor/head contact is secondary - your body hits first, then your head)

So, without real studies, and real protocols in place to see if they are happening, I wouldn't be betting that they aren't.

No one's saying that roller derby is concussion-free. I'm living, breathing proof that it's not. However, in my experience, concussions in roller derby are treated with much more concern than, say, the NFL or whatever - because we are a new sport. We're not set in traditions of "brush it off and go back in the game." We can say "no, this is something serious, we need to stop the game and make sure that skater is okay and test him/her right away to see if there's any immediate damage, and keep an eye on him/her in the future."

Also - derby is not our livelihood, as much as we wish it might be. As the cliche goes, we're mothers and lawyers and doctors and pizza delivery people and students. If we get hurt seriously, we're more likely to take a step back, say "hey, if I keep this up, I might not be able to work and earn a living for my family", as opposed to "if I don't play I won't get paid I have to brush it off I'm fine".
posted by Lucinda at 11:43 AM on October 14, 2013


It's also not unlike today's military.

This is not a realistic characterization of the military. If anything, the military's recruiting standards are designed to cut out anyone from the lower class, by a near-absolute bar if you have a criminal record (occasionally exempted, but there's a clear glass ceiling if you do; it's not too common), English language fluency requirement, drug testing, high school graduation requirement, etc.

If you can enlist in the military you can almost certainly get a civilian job doing something else, if you want to. Maybe not one with the same possibility of upward mobility, or a ticket out of whatever dead-end town you were born in, or health benefits, though. That's where you get into the recruiters' selling points, and in my experience they are aimed at middle-class people (or at least those whose parents were middle class, given the collapse of that segment of our society).

Professional sports are, and I suspect will continue to be, a bit different: they're a lottery. Rather the opposite of the military, sports are a continuous, exponentially-tightening funnel as you move towards the extreme end where the rewards are great but the numbers are vanishingly small. There's no equivalent to that in the military; it's not like the guys in SEAL Team 6 get paid 100x more than the guys of equivalent seniority elsewhere. Nobody enlists with the idea lodged in their head of someday becoming fantastically, filthily, solid-gold-toilet as-seen-on-MTV's-Cribs wealthy. (Not to say that people don't enlist for the money; sure, lots of people do. But it's generally a relatively small amount of money and it's actually delivered on.)

What the NFL, and to some extent most other professional sports organizations, offer to young people is something much more vague. Rather than an explicit set of criteria that a person can meet and be offered a job paying a set amount of money, instead there's a vague promise that if you work really hard, if you are the best, that maybe, someday, after highschool and after college and if the stars align correctly during the draft, you will strike it rich (and, conversely, if you fail to make it at any particular level, it's your own fault). This is far more insidious a technique than the military recruiters have to work with.

I'd much rather see a kid join JROTC than Pop Warner; not only is the value proposition of the military more clear (if with a steeper possible downside), but it's pretty unusual to end up with a brain injury in JROTC.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:45 AM on October 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


However, in my experience, concussions in roller derby are treated with much more concern than, say, the NFL or whatever

That's good to hear! Anytime you're on wheels, you have a path for your head to pivot straight to the floor, which is what I mean by the 5' lever arm. I know you guys wear helmets, and I hope you're either looking at them very hard or cutting the straps and tossing them every time someone's head hits the floor. Hockey helmets are better about multiple blows, but a question for the teams is do you have someone in the equipment manager role to inspect, repair, and decertify helmets when they're too beat up to continue? The worst form of safety gear is damaged safety gear, because you think and act as if you're protected.

Finally (you can see how much roller derby I've seen, can't you?) do players put covers on the helmets? If so, they shouldn't -- scuff marks on the surface tell you where hits happened and clue you where to look for damage to the protection layers. That's the big reason no pro league allows anything but thin stickers on helmets, and doesn't allow you to add anything to the surface during a game or practice session.

(It's also why you shouldn't use a cover on your bike helmet. Unless it's really cold. In which case, if you take a hit, toss the helmet.)
posted by eriko at 11:53 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The end game to this might be that football will just be so expensive at the lowest levels that fewer and fewer schools and youth organizations will be willing to participate in it. The best athletes will play other sports, or won't play sports at all, leading to increased enthusiasm for other sports ahead of NCAA football and the NFL.

But while I can type those words, I just can't possibly actually imagine that happening, even in 50 years.


Boxing was the most popular sport in the US about 50 years ago. I can see a similar future for football.
posted by Copronymus at 11:56 AM on October 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Also - derby is not our livelihood, as much as we wish it might be. As the cliche goes, we're mothers and lawyers and doctors and pizza delivery people and students. If we get hurt seriously, we're more likely to take a step back, say "hey, if I keep this up, I might not be able to work and earn a living for my family", as opposed to "if I don't play I won't get paid I have to brush it off I'm fine".

I would say that this is pretty much true for the adult rugby players that I know in the States as well, even the ones who play in competitive city leagues. It's why I stopped after college. The farm system of playing a sport from the age of 5 or 6 isn't as prevalent for rugby in the US (though I have coached 5/6 year olds; they played touch until high school and man were they adorable) which leads to some safety issues later (if you're like me and only play in college, you have a lot of tackling tactics to learn) but also fewer concussive incidences over time. And our coaches were adamant about taking the time to heal properly...possibly because we had 0 scholarship or endorsement dollars riding on our unprotected shoulders.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:01 PM on October 14, 2013


This is not a realistic characterization of the military.

Yes, you're probably right, and I shouldn't have just left that there. What I meant to imply was that the people making decisions about (and often those benefiting most from) military action aren't usually the ones sending their kids to war. My parallel was intended to be that the people with the most influence on potential harm to players/soldiers are people who are unlikely to have a personal stake in the issue.
posted by GodricVT at 12:02 PM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Blind draw position playing. You field 11 players and draw blindly on who will play where. This way, only the most excellent generalists will be paid top dollar.

You're Tim Tebow's agent, aren't you?

Actually, I like this idea.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:16 PM on October 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


What bothers me most is the callous way the league has treated veteran players with injuries. The story of Doug Kotar is only one example. I'm very suspicious of the settlement reached between the NFL and the players.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:52 PM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Having said that… I watched the RedZone all afternoon again this Sunday.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:53 PM on October 14, 2013


The ethos of the NFL is basically all about wasting young men's bodies for money.

If you played without pads but with the same ethos, you'd just be switching head injuries for other force-injuries, because the incentives to play beyond the safe limits would be just too great. The incentives to the league to inculcate that culture amount to literally tens of billions of dollars; the incentive to the individual is more interesting, because as anyone who's had an 'in the trenches' job should know, the money isn't really the most important thing.

Football with no pads would be carnage, right up to the point that model became financially untenable for the NFL. The only thing the league understands is money.
posted by lodurr at 12:54 PM on October 14, 2013


> Every college in the country has a football team

what country?
not these

University of Alaska (30,000 students)
Boston University (32,000)
California - Santa Barbara (20,000)
Cal State - Fullerton (36,000)
Cal State - Long Beach (35,000)
Cal State - Northridge (36,000)
George Washington (24,000)
Marquette (11,000)
Maryland - Baltimore County (12,000)
Northeastern (15,000) *dropped football in 2009*
Texas - Arlington (31,000)
Vermont (11,000)
Wichita State (15,000)

Not Hampshire or Reed either. Northeastern dropped it due to cost, not the conflict between educating minds while destroying brains, but just the idea that a college with a 74 year old program can drop it is helpful. BU dropped their program in 1997.
posted by morganw at 12:56 PM on October 14, 2013


The Concussion Watch link isn't up to date because Detroit's TE Tony Scheffler and RB Theo Riddick both missed this week's game. Right now it stands as "no missed games". Maybe they update it after week 6 is in the books after the Monday night game.

The major updates come out with the NFL's injury reports, so they won't be listed as missing a game until some time this week.

Also, 2012 really ought to list Jahvid Best. His story was very interesting to follow

Unfortunately, his actual concussion was in 2011. There are probably plenty of players carrying consequences from earlier hits into other seasons, but that's outside the scope of this.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:59 PM on October 14, 2013


"[A player dying on the field] has happened exactly one time, and it was since the advent of helmets."

Following the link in that comment, I found a link to a list that includes quite a few folks who've died on the football field (AFL, NFL and NCAA/NAIA), including Derek Sheely in 2011, Zach Shaver and Dylan Steigers in 2010, Al Lucas in 2005, and Curtis Williams in 2001. And that's just in the last 13 years.
posted by postel's law at 1:12 PM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I can't see colleges suddenly seeing huge increases in student insurance rates for football players. Everything that I'm hearing (and please correct me if I'm wrong) is that these symptoms tend to show up later in life, after a player has been used up physically. There are some cases of younger people, but it sounds like the majority are past their prime football years. And we know the colleges don't care about the players afterwards.

The only way that I can see for the NFL to be forced to take this seriously is by their players union. And I just don't know how strong that union is. They would need multiple years in which there was no profit due to lawsuit payouts before they would really take this seriously.

I wonder what would happen if instead of the hard shelled helmets, players had to wear something similar to a boxing/martial arts sparing helmet.
posted by Hactar at 1:13 PM on October 14, 2013


I really don't think there is a helmet design that could stop the brain from smashing against its container.
posted by thelonius at 1:32 PM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really don't think there is a helmet design that could stop the brain from smashing against its container.

And for that reason the NFL and its teams should just stick to redesigning logos, which also don't help prevent brain injuries but sure provide lots of additional merchandising revenue.
posted by MoonOrb at 1:35 PM on October 14, 2013


Thanks to briank for bring this here-- I was really hoping that someone would and his presentation does the scope of the project justice. It really was huge-- Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada and producer Mike Kirk and his team brought together a huge amount of material and turned it into a clear, informative, compelling documentary. Everyone at FRONTLINE worked very hard to make this show a success, including the web team and I'm proud to have been a part of it.

If you're interested in how Concussion Watch works, it's essentially javascript writing the page dynamically from a json file exported from a spreadsheet. There are lots of ways to do something like this, but that fit in with our existing architecture and works. Jason the site producer enters the data and saves, and the existing json gets overwritten.

I wrote the js, and it's extensively commented if you're into that sort of thing. Basically, it builds an array based on what's requested, sorts it, and displays based on the request. If you're interested in sharing specific stuff, you can link just to the info that you want if you use the right url structure:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/concussion-watch/#positions_2013 gives you the position diagram for 2013. Change the last bit for 2012.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/concussion-watch/#teams_2013 gives you teams. Add an underscore and team name (like "http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/concussion-watch/#teams_2013_Lions") to get a list of any team's concussions for a season. And if you open a specific player, you'll get a direct URL to link to him.
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:44 PM on October 14, 2013 [12 favorites]


Seems to me that just removing the facemask and changing the helmets from rigid plastic to a Peter-Cech-skull-fracture-special would do the trick.
posted by beukeboom at 1:56 PM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


No padding whatsoever.

That is a fantastic idea. Leather rugby helmets and mouth guards only. I've been saying for years that professional flag football would be great--it's certainly fun as hell to play. It would take the brawn out of football and the faster, more nimble players would be the stars--much more like soccer. (Usually, though, my macho friends just point and laugh at me when I say this.)

As a kid we would play touch football and games would zip along, with high scores on each side. Even then I would watch NFL and college games and be bored. Set! Hut! Everyone crashes together, and then they sloooowly get up and back to the line. I know people talk about baseball as slow, but I find football infinitely slower.
posted by zardoz at 2:08 PM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The by-position chart is informative. Wide receivers and defensive backs ought to get some serious hazardous duty pay.
posted by bukvich at 2:10 PM on October 14, 2013


"Finally (you can see how much roller derby I've seen, can't you?) do players put covers on the helmets? If so, they shouldn't -- scuff marks on the surface tell you where hits happened and clue you where to look for damage to the protection layers. That's the big reason no pro league allows anything but thin stickers on helmets, and doesn't allow you to add anything to the surface during a game or practice session. "

The only players with covers on their helmets are the jammers (the player who scores by lapping the other players), which is a position that different skaters hold throughout the match, and the covers mark them as the jammer.
posted by klangklangston at 3:07 PM on October 14, 2013


What I meant to imply was that the people making decisions about (and often those benefiting most from) military action aren't usually the ones sending their kids to war. My parallel was intended to be that the people with the most influence on potential harm to players/soldiers are people who are unlikely to have a personal stake in the issue.

Fair enough, in that sense. I just get irritated when I see people alleging that the military is drawing from / exploiting the lower classes exclusively or preferentially, when in my experience it's one of the few classless* environments left in American society. I've had a couple of careers, and I can say easily that the military was the most diverse. In my time in a software company, I don't recall ever running across anyone whose native language wasn't English, or who wasn't a US Citizen**.

That all said, I enjoy watching American football. There's something intellectually satisfying about the gridiron game. It has a sort of simplicity and setpiece nature that soccer and rugby lack (as does hockey), but more dynamicism than baseball. For that reason alone I think it's hard to displace. I'm not sure what you'd displace it with. I can't think of many other sports where so much is determined ahead of time, in the positioning of the players and the planning of plays, with one side acting and the other side reacting, and then trading positions every so often.

In my highschool world, the place of football was taken by lacrosse. We didn't even have a football team; we just had lacrosse. (And the social space that might have otherwise been taken by football jocks was taken by lacrosse jocks. Don't think that by eliminating football that you can eliminate jock culture. Sorry. But that it were so.) It lacks the setpiece, scrimmage starts that American football has, though. But it does allow almost every player to fancy himself the equivalent of a football quarterback, so that's something at least.

* Classless at least in the sense of having its own class structure which was completely internal to the organization and clearly delineated. Admittedly, sometimes that class structure was related to an external class structure, but much more loosely than most other environments that I've ever seen. And I'm of the opinion that an obvious, admitted class structure is orders of magnitude less bad than an unadmitted, unacknowledged, unconscious class structure, which is largely the case elsewhere.

** And who was treated as an equal -- not an outsourced warm body.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:39 PM on October 14, 2013


In my highschool world, the place of football was taken by lacrosse.

Did you attend school with a bunch of werewolves?
posted by asperity at 5:40 PM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I played football from 5th grade through freshman year of high school. I got my "bell rung" as the coaches like to say a couple times my first season so subsequently I was extremely careful about getting my head right.

This wasn't always good enough, and freshman year in our second to last game my head was pounded as I attempted to cover a kickoff. I missed the start of the next series, not because I was being tended to, but because I had no idea what was going on. The rest of the team unwittingly went on with only 10 players. For the remainder of the game helpful teammates notified me when I was supposed to be on the field. I wasn't right for days afterward.

Despite all the pressure from coaches, friends, parents, etc. to keep playing, that was it for me. What we've learned relatively recently about concussions in football has led my wife and I to decide that it's it for our kids as well.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 7:08 PM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


As a pediatric neurologist so deep in football country that I can never dig myself out, I have resigned myself to the fact that 90+% of football families just won't listen when I warn them about the lifelong risks of concussions and traumatic brain injuries after their son has had his first (obviously) bad stinger that made him vomit and walk funny and have headaches for weeks and personality changes for months. I'll see them the next time it happens.

I mean, I've seen multiple kids who have suffered actual minor strokes from tearing blood vessels supplying the brain, who are lucky to be escaping with minor brain damage. Both they and their parents always ask how long they have to sit out before they can play again. The kid naturally doesn't realize what a close shave he just had, but I am always astounded at the parents.

As much as it pains me, you're reduced to being the meaningless "wahwahwah" of Charlie Brown's parents when football is involved.

Oh well, I keep saying it all the same! I do it for the the small percentage who listen - because I don't know which family that will be.
posted by vetala at 7:10 PM on October 14, 2013 [17 favorites]


It's going to be interesting to see all American high school and college football programs shut down. People will look at old yearbooks and think, "Holy fuck, they used to encourage kids to do that shit? And actually hand out scholarships for it?"
posted by pracowity at 4:03 AM on October 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


(It's also going to be interesting to see the US to become a real soccer/football country when all those athlete hours and dollars are redirected from American football to other sports.)
posted by pracowity at 5:40 AM on October 15, 2013


Never gonna happen.

Soccer doesn't have what it takes to compete with the contemplative nature of baseball or the quick action and high scoring of basketball. It will always be a niche sport like lacrosse or sailing here. Football's demise will simply be a loss, not an opportunity.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:42 AM on October 15, 2013


I think you might be underestimating the appeal of soccer, Slap*Happy. I mean, there's a reason it's so insanely popular in almost every non-US country.
posted by Drexen at 6:55 AM on October 15, 2013


Never gonna happen.

Soccer doesn't have what it takes to compete with the contemplative nature of baseball or the quick action and high scoring of basketball. It will always be a niche sport like lacrosse or sailing here. Football's demise will simply be a loss, not an opportunity.


I dunno, man, I don't think I can agree with you there. I'm not a giant soccer fan by any means, but i've definitely noticed the last three world cups have received greater and greater levels of attention in the mainstream US sports press. Fox was showing soccer matches on the weekends during the offseason for a while there. And sites like Grantland have consistent soccer coverage --- nowhere near as much as the NFL, for which there's one or two fresh articles a day in season, often more, but at least one a week, plus a weekly podcast and at least one beat writer. Partly that's because there's a bigger Latino population in the US now than there was 15 years ago. But part of it I think is the same cross pollination among urban yuppies that we're seeing in the rest of the media --- I know plenty of people who watch the BBC World News and Top Gear and such. I bet you the average American could name three professional soccer players now, and that definitely wasn't the case ten years ago. At the moment I'd say it's at about the level of popularity of tennis, definitely way more than lacrosse, and with much more upside potential as people get used to being able to live stream tv from all over the world.
posted by Diablevert at 7:21 AM on October 15, 2013


I mean, there's a reason it's so insanely popular in almost every non-US country.

Yeah. European imperialism and colonial conquest. We got over that a couple hundred years back, and prefer the home-grown competitions. We don't feel like we need to import soccer hooliganism to feel fancy and first-world, either. We already have Philly fans.

And sites like Grantland have consistent soccer coverage --- nowhere near as much as the NFL, for which there's one or two fresh articles a day in season, often more, but at least one a week, plus a weekly podcast and at least one beat writer.

So... they give it almost as much coverage as Professional Wrestling.

ESPN and SI will attempt to drum up interest for soccer once every few years, too. It's like the Fusion of sports - perpetually 5-10 years away from being something big.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:40 AM on October 15, 2013


Fox was showing soccer matches on the weekends during the offseason for a while there.

I know it's a niche channel, but we get the Fox Soccer Channel -- nothing but soccer and soccer commentary 24 hours a day. It's part of our digital cable package, and it doesn't touch the like nine channels of football coverage, but it's there. And here in Seattle, Sounders fandom is definitely a thing.
posted by KathrynT at 8:09 AM on October 15, 2013


So... they give it almost as much coverage as Professional Wrestling.

I don't know why I've spent the time, but I looked over the podcast listings page for the past month. Looking just at the sports podcasts descriptions to see how often a sport is covered (and not simmons's own podcast or the pop culture ones) and including the best-of-the-week compilations, this is the count I get:

Baseball: 10
American Football: 17
Soccer: 12
Basketball: 4
Hockey: 0
Pro Wrestling: 2
Other: 3

Some of those are off season. In addition, NBC just spent $250 million for a three year deal for the right to English Premier League. That $83 million odd a year is a helluv a lot less than the NFL ($1 billion per broadcaster), NCAA basketball ($500 million), baseball ($500m per broadcaster) or even hockey ($250m). But it's more than double what ESPN paid per year for Wimbledon ($40m), and triple the previous deal the league had with Fox soccer. Also, supposedly ESPN's in house social scientist says soccer's the second most popular sport among Americans btw 12-24, and Lionel Messi has a better Q score among them than Dwayne Wade.

Anecdotes are anecdotes but money is money. Is soccer more popular than baseball, basketball or football? No, not right now. But it's creeping up on hockey and the rights are already worth more than niche sports like golf or tennis.
posted by Diablevert at 8:23 AM on October 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Hockey is the Coast Guard of sports.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:02 AM on October 15, 2013


When the NFL dies, I see the US switching to soccer/football because it will give the US its only chance to be an actual world champion at something (not counting the women, who of course are already soccer world champions). The rest of the world (here and there, depending) is somewhat interested in the NHL, NBA, and MLB as a goal to which its athletes can aspire (i.e., get rich by), but it doesn't really care about those leagues like it cares about its own soccer/football leagues and the world championship. You will never hear the lamentation of their women, etc., until you've beaten them at their own game and taken home a FIFA World Cup or two.
posted by pracowity at 9:16 AM on October 15, 2013


I don't really see football going away. Every time they make a rules change for safety people complain about "wussifying" the game but the ratings just keep going up, up, up. I'll keep watching the Eagles even after it becomes flag football.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:16 AM on October 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's not so much that they'll wussify the NFL, but that the schools will stop providing a steady stream of college football and NFL players and fans when they stop playing football at the high school level.
posted by pracowity at 9:35 AM on October 15, 2013


Diablevert: In addition, NBC just spent $250 million for a three year deal for the right to English Premier League.

And they are doing a hell of a job of it, honestly. There are 2 or three matches on either NBC Sports or regular NBC every Saturday morning, and you can watch literally any match on their website or mobile app. I wake up early on Saturdays now just to catch some soccer, and after several personal attempts at EPL fandom, I think it is finally sticking, now that it's being covered on US TV so well.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:18 AM on October 15, 2013


it will give the US its only chance to be an actual world champion at something

I'm not following what you are saying. Are you making a technical point about what constitutes a world championship? Because if your point is about the US winning a world competition, soccer is not it is "only chance." Actually, it is one of the handful of team sports that the US has not been an actual world champion at. You can look at the Olympics, and the US Women's have won 4 golds. The US has dominated and won basketball in the Olympics pretty regularly since their pros played. And the US has won gold medals in hockey and baseball. And it is pretty safe to say that if football was an Olympic sport, the US would win at that at levels that would eclipse its dominance in basketball. Then you have the whole overall medal issue.

So it seems odds to suggest that soccer is the US's only chance to be actual world champion at something. Maybe I am just not understanding your point.
posted by dios at 12:55 PM on October 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


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