Football season is in the air, and with it the return of some often misleading and obfuscatory messages from the NFL and NCAA about the sport’s risk of head injuries — and about who bears responsibility for the health of those who used to play it.
It didn’t take long for the NFL’s new helmet contact rules to spark controversy with the Hall of Fame game kicking off the league’s preseason last week. The rules penalize players who fail to keep their heads up while making contact, a move the league says will improve player safety by reducing the risk of direct impact on players’ spines. But since football is a game of leverage in which players succeed by getting their shoulders beneath their opponent’s — and in which defenders can’t always predict the path their target will take — it’s unclear whether the new rules will reduce injuries, or even change the way players block and tackle.
The NFL, no doubt motivated in part by a concussion settlement with former players that saw $500 million in claims approved in June, has to its credit taken some positive steps. A round of league-run lab tests on some popular football helmet models, for example, led to the phase-out in April of 10 models that failed to meet new standards for impact absorption. That’s a significant improvement from a league that in 1989 gave exclusive branding rights to Riddell, effectively limiting market competition among helmet companies, a policy that was eliminated in 2013 after criticism from doctors.
But in its rule changes and semantics regarding helmet contact, the NFL seems to be reframing the issue of head injuries as a matter of proper playing technique, and not an inherent risk of the game. No doubt the league is frightened by the sharp nationwide decline in youth football participation, which has fallen 5 percent since peaking in 2008 at 1.11 million student-athletes, even though overall high school sports participation increased from 4 million in 2001 to nearly 4.6 million last year, according to a study published this year in JAMA Pediatrics.
“This decline is associated with media attention focused on concussions or brain injuries among football players,” study co-author Dr. Chris Feudtner of the University of Pennsylvania said.
Youth football’s decline should come as no surprise; an April study published in the Annals of Neurology showed a significant link between playing football before the age of 12 and the early onset of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease linked to concussions. Such studies have spurred lawmakers in Illinois, California, Maryland and New Jersey to call for bans on youth tackle football, according to Sports Illustrated. Although state legislatures probably aren’t the proper forum for dealing with the risks the sport poses to children, it’s probably not a bad idea for parents to consider voluntarily holding their kids out during this important phase of cognitive growth.
And football fans, don’t worry: such a move wouldn’t necessarily be the death knell of the sport. Playing a variety of sports will make young athletes more versatile anyway, and these boys can later take up football as teenagers better physically suited to defending themselves.
For all the joy it brings us, football is risky. No new rule or improved helmet will ever change that. It shouldn’t be banned, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for enjoying it. But the kids playing, the fans watching and the leagues profiting from it should have an honest understanding of its risks.