Given the Panthers’ performance, Super Bowl 50 was hard to watch for a lot of us. It was even harder for those few viewers who allowed themselves to focus on the increasingly obvious fact that the sport is killing its players.
Regardless of what the NFL says, the evidence keeps mounting. In the days before the Super Bowl, it was revealed that Oakland Raiders great Ken Stabler suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head.
A week before, Tyler Sash’s family announced that the former New York Giants safety had been suffering from CTE when he overdosed on drugs last fall at age 27. And of course, all-time great linebacker Junior Seau had CTE when he shot himself to death.
Researchers are coming to realize that CTE among NFL players may be the rule, not the exception. A study last year from Boston University and the Department of Veterans Affairs found CTE in 87 of the 91 deceased NFL players they examined.
The NFL, though, takes those studies like the tobacco industry took the surgeon general’s warnings. Worried about the future of its billions in revenue, NFL officials repeatedly contend that there is no definitive link between football and brain injuries. ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported last week that the NFL has quietly tried to influence research and to downplay the link between the sport’s hard hits and CTE. The league has reneged on financial commitments when researchers came back with data it didn’t like, the report said.
The NFL’s approach is self-defeating. The science is undeniable, and players and parents of future players are increasingly aware of it. Rather than stonewalling, the NFL should be part of the solution. The league could learn something from the alcohol industry, which incorporated a “drink responsibly” message into its marketing to save itself from greater regulation. And as with alcohol, “play responsibly” should be only a beginning.
Football is America’s favorite sport, and teachers life lessons to kids who play it. So it’s worth saving with some changes.
While the CTE cases have focused public attention on the NFL, a more urgent place to start is with youth leagues. Pre-teens’ brains are still developing, and research is finding that repeated head collisions are especially damaging at that age. The industry – from the NFL to the NCAA to rec league organizers to parents – should embrace banning tackle football for children under 13. Kids can learn many of the essential skills of the sport playing flag football while nearly eliminating the risk of youthful blows to the head.
Other proposals worth considering include banning kickoffs, when players are running at their highest speeds at each other, and limiting contact during practice.
Brain injuries could be an existential threat to the great sport of football. The sport has to change. The good news is it can do so and continue to thrive – but it has to start at the top.