Do Risks Surrounding Head Injuries Threaten The Future Of The NFL?


Shortly after the National Football League (NFL) reported last January that 281 concussions were diagnosed during the 2017 season, the highest number since the league started to share the information almost six years ago, league executives have been concerned over the lasting ramifications of the numbers.

Ever since the revelation, the NFL has been attempting to improve player safety by adopting new rules surrounding kickoffs and helmet-to-helmet hits, which will be readdressed at this week’s Spring League Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia on May 22nd and 23rd.

Although leadership is hoping that these changes can help calm rising worries revolving around the common trepidation towards the correlation with brain damage and football, will it be enough to sway public opinion?

Despite the league’s efforts, the future of football might be in jeopardy. Since 2009, participation in youth football has decreased by 27.7 percent for players aged 6-14, declining at a faster rate than every other sport except wrestling and court volleyball. For many parents contemplating on letting their children play football, the risks obviously do not outweigh the rewards.

What if I proposed that maybe it's for the best?

Before continuing, I just want to say that I love football. 

Despite of its flaws, there’s something about the game that makes it so transcendent and exhilarating. During each football weekend in the fall of every year, the sport is treated like a religion. No matter where someone is from or what they do for a living, people from all walks of life join in the festivities - tailgating, parades, and others - to collectively pull for their respective teams to victory. The climax of this spiritual experience is the game itself, as spectators enjoy the entertainment, and the variety of emotions that are associated with it.

Since eclipsing baseball in popularity in the mid-20th century, football truly has become America’s game.

On the other hand, there is just something barbaric about the game of football. Common phrases like throwing a “bomb” down field and battling in the “trenches” doesn’t help to mitigate the sports’ correlations to militaristic propaganda. During the sport’s infancy in the late 19th century, football was used as means to prepare men for war. Starting in 1882, the U.S. Armed Forces utilized the extreme brutality of the game to their benefit. By using football as a medium, young cadets were learning the necessary skills and strategies of warfare. 

When technology evolved with the times through the implementation of radio and television in the mid-20th century, football became a commercialized product 

In his novel titled Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto that was published in 2015, sports journalist and best-selling author Steve Almond thoroughly establishes his criticisms for the game, but he can also understand its virtues in a way.

"Football, in its exalted moments, is not just a sport but a lovely and intricate form of art,” Almond writes. 

Growing up an Oakland Raiders fan, Almond was a diehard football fanatic like most others in the country. One day though, he couldn’t take the hypocrisy anymore. 

“Football is the one major American sport that selects specifically for the ability to inflict and absorb physical pain,” Almond writes. “What is it in our national psychology that gets off on seeing boys engage in such a savage game?”

Speaking with WBUR, a membered station with NPR, Almond recounts on why so many people have such fondness for a game that indulges on “our lust for violence.”

“The game was a place of refuge,” Almond said. “It is a place where the complications and frustrations and moral duty of adult life just disappears - poof - and you are re-immersed in those pleasures of childhood and the kind of magical thinking that prevails in childhood.”

Almond also remarks on the hypocrisy that the NFL advertises to the public, especially in cases of domestic violence that are prevalent off-the-field. While football fans will call the actions of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson “monstrous,” they are still “sponsors of the game” that “sells violence.”

“The Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson stories allowed fans to get very angry and indignant, and not see any relationship to what’s happening on the field,” Almond said. “I think about it often times from the point of view of the brain. You don’t know what the external context is, you just know if you’re knocked senseless you’re suddenly no longer functioning. The brain inside Ray Rice’s girlfriend, now wife, was knocked senseless, and we all saw that and got upset; it seemed monstrous. Brains are knocked senseless in that same manner every Sunday and it’s because in the context of football that we say, ‘great’. Football has managed to sanitize the violence.”

Similar to the gladiatorial matches of the Ancient Romans, we embrace the violence. So with these troubles in mind, I would like to tell a story.

Imagine someone playing on their high school football team, and game day is finally here.

Everyone in town has closed their businesses for the evening because on Friday nights in this small rural area—football is the talk of the town. It is more than just a sporting event. For the thousands of people who squeeze themselves within capacity of an average high school stadium, football is truly a cultural phenomenon. One that brings an entire community together for the purposes of one goal - to cheer their team on to victory.

Entering the game as a kickoff returner on special teams, this player stands in absolute awe, as he listens to the thunderous roar coming from the crazed spectators on the sideline. Appreciating the moment, he soaks it all in, while waiting in anticipation for the opening kickoff. Having played the sport for practically his entire life, he craved for moments like these.

Once the kickoff commences and the game is under way, the high school athlete receives the ball and attempts to break through the swarming tacklers, which all have the adrenaline-filled need to bring him down by any means necessary. Noticing a hole in the coverage, the athlete believes he has found an opening that would directly take him to the end zone, providing him with the golden opportunity to immerse himself as the first hero of the night, and then suddenly - boom.

The returner is harshly smacked to the ground by a blinding hit that comes out of nowhere, knocking him completely unconscious. On average, it only takes around 60 units of g-force to trigger a concussion. However, in just one head-to-head collision like this one on the football field, a subject can experience approximately 100 units of g-force. 

Hypothetically speaking, let’s say this specific concussion was only a minor setback for a player that would ultimately spend 10 to 15 years of his professional career as a football player in the NFL. Despite all the success, the hit that this player sustained back in high school was only one of many. By the time he retires, this athlete would have suffered through roughly 70,000 helmet-to-helmet blows, spanning all of the practices, drills and games that took place from the Pee-Wee Leagues to the NFL. 

After enduring through continuous instances of head trauma over the years, each hit gradually took its toll—succeeding to slowly choke the subject’s mind. By the age of 50, this player is not the same person that he once was. Constantly feeling dizzy, agitated and disoriented, the former superstar athlete that entertained and was beloved by millions of fans, feels like he has lost control—seeing double vision, hearing voices in his head, quickly succumbing to irrational emotions like anger and rage. In this personal turmoil of anxiousness and depression, he only saw one way out to make all the pain go away—suicide.

Although this exemplified character is fictionalized, many of these story beats are nothing further   from falsity. 

With all of this in mind, what does it say that I still can’t wait for the beginning of football season in September?