The Concussion Problem in American Football

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Image:Wilsonnflfootball.jpg, modified to have ...

Image:Wilsonnflfootball.jpg, modified to have a transparent background. All rights released to the original author. The original description was: “Picture of generic football, GFDL, that FutureNJGov took a while back (2003? 2004?) for a school project. FutureNJGov shrunk it down in size and uploaded it to Wikipedia for a free image of a football.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It really should be no surprise that there have been more concussions in recent years in American football. Players are much bigger than before. When I was growing up  in the 1960s and 1970s, a 260-pound lineman was huge. Now there are NFL linemen who weigh 340 or more and can still run a fast 100-yard dash. Force equals mass times acceleration, and when a 300+ pound defensive back runs into a 200-pound running back, the forces involved, even with advances in helmet technology, can be greater than the brain can bear. Brain against skull = a brain bruise, a concussion. Some former NFL players have permanent damage and early-onset dementia, and recent suicides of former players have brought this issue to the public’s attention again. Can anything be done to stop the increase in brain injuries among football players at all levels?

First of all, bans on dirty play should be strictly enforced in football from the elementary school level to the NFL. Players who violate rules against head shots should be automatically suspended on the first offense, and there should be an ascending scale of punishments for further offenses, up to a permanent ban from playing football. One would think that the players’ union would want to protect NFL players from such hits by supporting strong punlaishments to deter others, but the recent union reaction to the NFL Commissioner‘s punishment of players from the New Orleans Saints who were allegedly involved in a “hit list” of players to intentionally hurt does not bode well for the union’s supporting strict penalties. Too often, the union has called for reducing punishments for players who violate the rules, even players who take blatant head shots at other players. Management and labor must get on board to stop dirty hits that can so easily maim–or even potentially kill–a football player. College coaches should be willing to suspend any player, including a star player, who makes a dirty hit, and for repeat offenders the college or university administration should consider expelling players for particularly egregious actions. Fans should realize that dirty play by a player on the team they like is never justified and should be disciplined.

Many clean hits lead to concussions or more serious injury. Further work can be done to improve technology in protective equipment, including helmets. There is always fear when improvements are made that personal injury lawyers will sue the helmet manufacturing company when a player is hurt, claiming that “This occurred before the new helmet came out. So the company made an unsafe helmet and knew it.” Such actions are blatantly unfair, and personal injury lawyers know it. It may be a bit much to ask some personal injury lawyers to be ethical, but juries should be aware that advances in football safety equipment will not occur if companies get blamed for less safe equipment made before design improvements. Hopefully companies will ignore the risk and and work with their research and development division to make better safety equipment.

Players’ insurance policies should include provisions for long-term care, including psychological help with the effects of brain damage on the mind. The NFL can afford to include such provisions; colleges and universities should also include those provisions in the insurance plans they contract to offer players.

There is a long tradition in the United States of allowing consenting adults to engage in risky sports activities as long as they realize the extent of the risk. All sports have risks: a baseball player can be hit on the head or in the solar plexus; the former can cause serious brain injury and the latter, in some cases, can cause ventricular fibrillation and sudden death. Basketball players get hit when they run into or are run into by other players. Anyone who believes that hockey is safe is kidding themselves. Even running can contribute to a fatal heart arrhythmia in susceptible people. President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban football after several on-field deaths. While this went beyond his authority as president, it encouraged the rule change legalizing the forward pass, effectively changing a rugby-like game to modern football. I do not support a ban on football. As far as children playing (with parents’ permission), this is a tricky matter. If coaches carefully supervise players so as to minimize injuries it would be morally acceptable, in my judgment, for children to compete in football. If such discipline is not provided, someone points this out, and nothing is done about it, then allowing children to play is morally problematic. Children should be taught the difference between legal and illegal hits, taught to control their tempers on the field, and to play aggressively but with safety in mind. The game should be a fun activity, not an ancient Roman gladiatorial match.

I have never played football in any formal team setting, though I enjoyed playing with neighbors informally (tackle and flag football) as a child. I love to watch the game–the combination of the athletic skill combined with the intellectual complexity of contemporary football is intriguing. Hopefully measures will be taken to make the game safer for players so that American football can continue to be a staple of life in the United States for a long time to come.

Tennessee, LSU, and the Agony of Defeat

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Tennessee Football

Image by tabounds via Flickr

I love American football. I am not a fan of “that European game,” soccer, most likely to the chagrin of rabid soccer moms who naturally foam at the mouth in reaction to any attack on their religion–but I digress. I grew up in Tennessee and grew up, like my Dad, as a Tennessee Vols fan. Even though I received my Ph.D. from Georgia, and believe it to be a very good university, I still am torn when UGA and Tennessee play, and my loyalty to my home state usually wins out. It was back in 1971 when I watched my first Tennessee game on television, when Tennessee defeated Penn State 31-11 (I think that was the score, but I’m willing to be corrected). In all these years I have never seen an ending like the one at the game today between Tennessee and LSU.

This series has a long history, and Tennessee has been known to be a team that has brought heartbreak to LSU. It did not happen this year. LSU had poor time management at the very end of the game, and the snap was fumbled. It seemed that Tennessee had pulled out a 14-10 victory. But a few minutes later, the referee penalized Tennessee for having 12 men on the field (actually Tennessee did one better–it had 13 men on the field). Why the assistant coach in charge of substitutions would make so many when LSU was obviously in distress is beyond me–but in time pressure, it is easy for things to go wrong–and both teams were out of time outs. The heartbreak of the Vols players must be beyond belief, especially given the excellent game they played. The press can point out that Tennessee should have stopped LSU on a 4th and 14–and they should have. But that will not ease the pain of this loss. It is a test of their ability to recover from an event like this that will bring out the character of the Vols players.

Football is a mirror image of life. Coaches make elaborate plans, study film for hours–the intellectual demands of Division I NCAA football or the NFL are probably as great as those in chess. But chance plays such a big role since real people are playing, and real people fumble, make interceptions, and fail to leave the field when they are supposed to leave. In our lives, we make the most elaborate plans–and time and chance wreck those plans. The real challenge is to overcome defeats, to keep trying in the face of disappointments, even when those disappointments are our own fault.  I was heartbroken at the end of today’s game, but that feeling did not last for long–football is, after all, only a game. Life is infinitely more serious. But the hardest lessons in life, as in football, are too often learned through the agony of defeat–but just as Tennessee will not repeat its end of game mistake (I can almost guarantee it), hopefully we will learn from our mistakes in life.