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 upĀ  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.

Why the Hostility to Tim Tebow?


English: Tim Tebow, a player on the Denver Bro...

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Denver lost to New England yesterday, which is no surprise given that the Patriots are an excellent team. Yet when I read sports stories about the game, they focus on “a lack of Tim Tebow‘s heroics” as if a quarterback known for leading fourth quarter comebacks will be able to lead one every game. Even Joe Montana, who was one of the best quarterbacks ever, who (to my disappointment!) led the 49ers over the Bengals in the Super Bowl by a last minute drive, did not always succeed in a fourth quarter comeback. I do not remember the press complaining then. Why is there so much hostility, among members of the press and among some NFL players, to Tim Tebow?

Religion, specifically Tim Tebow’s open Evangelical Protestant faith, is the source of most of the hostility. Although many NFL players are public about their Christian faith, to American secular society Tebow seems, to the generally secularist media and to those NFL players who are either secularist or outside the Christian tradition, to take his faith too far. I have mentioned more than once on this blog the late Father Richard John Neuhaus‘s reference to the “naked public square” in which religion, specifically Christianity, is eliminated from American public discourse and relegated to a private realm. No scholar of religion in his right mind believes that religion is a private matter, since a religion scholar realizes the public implications of being religious. Only a fool can ignore thousands of years of history and his own common sense and say that “religion is just a private matter.” Even John Locke (1632-1704), the epitome of a Classical Liberal thinker, did not go that far.

Today those who relegate religion to the private sphere are usually hostile to religion in general. Ironically, they are not as hostile to Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam as they are to traditional Christianity, perhaps because of the strong influence of Christianity after the Second Great Awakening at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, on American culture. This strong influence continued until around the mid-1960s and then slowly began to wane, especially among the intellectual classes and among other opinion leaders. Sportscasters in the past tended to be a bit more traditional than most other journalists, at least from my reading, but that is no longer the case.

Tim Tebow has violated the fundamental rule of secularists–he not only discusses his Christian faith openly, but he does it often. He may well connect his abilities to God–there is nothing wrong with that–if God created everything, all abilities are gifts, whether the gifts be carpentry skills, medical skills, teaching skills, or football skills. If Mr. Tebow said he has special favor from God for being religious, and therefore his team wins because of God, that would be going too far–but as far as I have heard he has not said those things. Too much has been read into his statements by the media and by some NFL players. Mr. Tebow has every right to express his Christian faith, just as other players have a right to express whatever their faith (or lack of faith) may be. To condemn Mr. Tebow for being so open about his Christianity is a form of unjust discrimination against expressions of Christian faith. It is wrong, and members of the media need to control their snide remarks concerning Mr. Tebow’s faith–or at least admit that they are editorial comments. I doubt that a Muslim, a Hindu, or an Orthodox Jew would get the same treatment from the media, even if a football player who adhered to these religions was open about his faith. I may be wrong on this point and am open to correction. From my impression, as American society continues to go the European route of secularization (as evidenced by a sharp drop in weekly church attendance in the last ten years), secularists are going all out to try to shame Christians to stop them, or at least slow them, from expressing their faith in public. It is sad that such hostility has now extended to sports journalism and to some of the players in the NFL.


Suspend Players for Helmet-to-Helmet Contact

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The new NFL logo went into use at the 2008 draft.

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The National Football League is seriously considering suspending players who are guilty of helmet-t0-helmet contact. This is a good move that should get the players’ attention.

NFL players are bigger and faster than ever before. I can remember back in the 1970s when a lineman who weighed 270 was considered heavy; now weights are routinely in the 300+ range, and players are surprisingly fast for their weight. The forces generated due to tackles by players of that size accounts for the many injuries routinely seen in NFL (and college) football games. What is especially troubling is the increasing number of concussions, many due to helmet-to-helmet contact. The brain damage due to multiple concussions adds up over the years, with the risk of permanent memory, cognitive, and physical deficits.

I doubt that most players intentionally contact helmet-t0-helmet; after all, the person making the contact is likely to suffer a concussion, too. It is more of a matter of getting into bad habits in tackling (and I have been surprised at the poor quality of tackling in general in the NFL). Habits are learned by doing the same action over and over, and they can be unlearned in the same way. However, there must be incentive for them to learn. A player making ten million dollars a year will not worry about a fine. But a three-game suspension will get the player’s attention. Not only will he worry about his team, he may get peer pressure from his teammates not to repeat the offense. Fans may be upset that a star player will not be playing. Though they may initially blame the league, once the suspension penalty becomes well-established, they may begin to see that players have a responsibility to avoid illegal hits. Fans are sometimes true fanatics and do not care if a player from their favorite team hurts a player from another team, but this is a morally bad attitude to have. Fans worthy of the name will demand clean play. Hopefully the league will actually begin suspending players guilty of helmet-to-helmet contact, and hopefully this will change the tackling habits of defensive players for the better. In that way, players’ careers and good health can be better preserved.