Find a back issue

The End of Football Is Nigh

As Cowboys fans cling to their somehow-still-possible playoff chances, a new report released today shows how many of the current Cowboys could end up depressed, unable to recognize their own spouses, and unable to remember beating the Philadelphia Eagles. The Boston University study – and its related report in Brain magazine – found that of brain tissue collected from 85 people with a history of repetitive head trauma (military veterans, boxers, and football and hockey players) 68 samples were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a degenerative brain disorder linked to memory loss, depression and dementia.

Previously, CTE had been found in 18 of the 19 former NFL players whose brains were examined. The 15 new cases in the BU study mean that of the 34 brains of former NFL players that have been examined, 33 had the disease. Linemen made up 40 percent of those cases, supporting research that suggests repetitive head trauma occurring on every play – not concussions associated with violent collisions – may be the biggest risk. BU also reported CTE in four former NHL players.

Football will never cease in Texas, and that’s understandable. It’s a tent-pole, something that creates new communities and sustains old ones. Before you make up your mind about it – or the proven damage it inflicts on the minds of adults – see what it does to the minds of children, in Patrick’s Hruby’s piece “End Game: Brain Trauma And The Future Of Youth Football In America.” Pull:

Football has a problem. The game harms the human brain. The danger is acute at the professional level, where large men smash each other for large sums of money; the hazard is less publicized, but greater still, at the high school and youth level, where an estimated 4.8 million children – sons, nephews and little brothers, most between the ages of 6 and 13 – batter each other’s heads for fun, for the sheer giddy sake of sport. Once upon a time, we called football-induced brain damage getting your bell rung. We treated it with smelling salts. We kept on playing, kept on loving our Friday nights. Times change. The deaths are real. The damage no longer can be ignored. We are starting – at long last – to get a clue. Ours is an era of enlightenment, of concussion awareness, which is another way of saying risk management. Stories like Rickerson’s – and other stories that are much, much worse – have spurred reform. A collective effort to make football safer. We pass laws. Change the rules. Better identify and treat the victims. Lower the odds of catastrophe. We still love Friday nights. Only looming beneath the well-meaning correctives is a darker, more troubling question, one with grave implications for the sport and the children who play it, for every parent looking on from a grandstand: What if awareness isn’t enough?

What if the risk can’t be managed?

What does this mean for football in general? As research continues to stack up against the sport, will technology adapt to protect the players, or will the risk-reward fall by the wayside as the prospect of pro contracts – or at least middle-school glory – clouds?