Evidence Is Clear: Tackle Football Is Too Risky

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Evidence Is Clear: Tackle Football Is Too Risky By, John Gerdy  | As seen in LancasterOnline.com

As the son of a high school football coach, a former college athletic administrator and someone who has written extensively on football’s role in our schools and culture, I’ve been around, observed, contemplated and researched the game for more than 50 years. Naturally, I was very interested in seeing “Concussion,” the recently released movie starring Will Smith.

Smith portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered clear evidence that professional football players were susceptible to a progressive degenerative brain disease — chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), caused by repetitive blows to the head — and chronicles his efforts to alert the NFL and the rest of the world regarding that link.

Given my deep familiarity with the subject, the movie didn’t shed much new light on the details of football and brain damage. One notable exception however, had more to do with how to explain the link. In attempting to illustrate the connection, Dr. Omalu used as an example how a woodpecker pounds its head repeatedly against hard surfaces, yet does not damage its brain. That is because nature provided what amounts to a natural “shock absorber” in the form of its tongue, which wraps around its brain upon each impact. Humans do not have any equivalent shock absorber, prompting Omalu to declare in no uncertain terms that man was not made to play football.

That statement crystallizes the debate over whether to allow children to participate in football or for junior high and high schools to continue to sponsor it.

This is really about anatomy and the fact that you can’t fool Mother Nature. Our brains, the organ that makes us human, are simply not designed for football. And no matter how hard many well-meaning people are attempting to make football “suitably safe,” the fact is the forces of nature and anatomy will prevail.

While the football industrial complex’s public relations machine is running full throttle in its effort to convince parents that advancements in equipment, diagnosis, testing, protocol and tackling techniques have made the game safe, the cold, hard truth is that these claims are being made with little concrete, scientific evidence to back them up. Even on the most basic of issues, there is widespread disagreement, an example being how long a victim of a concussion should be held out of action. Is it a week? Two weeks? A month? A season? We simply do not know.

Further, all of the attention being placed on concussions is somewhat misguided. Unquestionably, concussions are extremely damaging to the brain. However, the larger issue is the brain damage sustained by repeated subconcussive blows to the head. Subconcussive blows clearly rattle the brain, thus causing cumulative trauma and damage, but not to the extent where the negative impact is immediately and outwardly noticed.

It’s brain death by a million cuts.

In other words, your child could be slowly, methodically damaging his brain without showing any immediate signs of doing so.

Until it is too late.

In short, while we have little idea of the effectiveness of various treatments and safety measures, what is absolutely not in doubt is that playing tackle football is damaging to the brain. That is indisputable. The only question is the extent of the damage.

So here’s the question: Why are so many people fighting so hard to deny the science and promote suspect and unproven safety improvements to continue to justify allowing children to play what is clearly a brutal sport that has been proven to cause brain damage?

In deciding to allow a child to participate, parents face a balancing act deciding whether the dangers outweigh the potential benefits of participation. That is difficult. But there are many other sports (including flag football) and activities, such as band and theater, that instill character traits such as discipline, teamwork skills and personal responsibility. Tackle football does not have the market cornered on teaching those lessons and skills.

Meanwhile, we have age limits and laws designed to protect children from a host of activities that have been proven to be dangerous to them, including smoking and alcohol consumption. Workplace safety laws, for instance, prohibit minors from operating certain kinds of equipment.

So why is football not prohibited for children?

Just because your child wants to play at the age of 12 or 14 does not mean you have to let him. What would you say, for example, if your child came to you at that age and stated, “I’d like to begin smoking cigarettes and dropping acid”? With such certainty regarding the link between football and brain damage and such uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of safety measures and treatment, why take the chance?

Ultimately, this is about anatomy, child safety and parental responsibility.

I’d strongly suggest that every parent with a child playing football or interested in playing football see the movie “Concussion.” And afterward, look in the mirror and ask yourself. “Was my child made to play football?”

Justin Rule

Coolidge Project, 110 Gamber Lane, Lancaster, PA, 17603