The Uncertain Future of Football

More stories from Nathan Giocondo

The average football game features over 100 bone jarring hits a game.  These hits can result in brutal injuries and have gotten stronger over the years.  As players become bigger, stronger and faster, the hits have become more dangerous over time as well.  While steps are being taken to try and make the game safer, the reality is it is a brutal game that may never be completely safe.

In 2004, an experiment was conducted by Virginia Tech University to study the total Gravity Force an average football hit produces.  The study equipped the players with sensors that could study pounds of pressure they experienced and the average hit produced around 100 G’s of force.  This is the equivalent of a severe car accident.  Players are experiencing this intense force around twenty times a game, sometimes more.  The study sparked the debate to build a better helmet, but is it going to be possible to diminish the ill-effects of an outright brutal game?

It is no secret that the trauma taken to the head is not good for the players.  More awareness has been spread over the last decade or so about diagnosing head injuries and preventing more dangerous hits.  The biggest problem of the continuous head trauma is the link it has to CTE.  CTE is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is a degenerative brain disease caused by continuous trauma to the head.  CTE can cause depression, paranoia, aggression, and mood changes.  CTE also causes early developments of memory loss and can affect motor skills as well.  

With the threat of CTE looming, more former players have decided to donate their brain to science after they pass.  CTE is easily detectable in the brains of deceased people and a major study conducted by Dr. Jesse Mez, Dr. Daniel Daneshvar, and Dr. Patrick Kiernan explained, “In a convenience sample of 202 deceased players of American football from a brain donation program, CTE was neuro-pathologically diagnosed in 177 players across all levels of play (87%), including 110 of 111 former National Football League players (99%).”

The link between playing football and CTE was extremely impactful on the football landscape.  The research proved that even players who only played high-school football had high chance of developing CTE.  As more studies are being done, more players are holding their children out of youth football.  Leagues that once had 10,000 kids, such as the Chicagoland Youth Football League, are down to about 7,000.  The fear of head trauma has been swelling over the last decade.

In recent years, more former NFL players have taken their own lives.  Major news stories, such as former All-pro linebacker Junior Seau taking his own life and former Patriots Tight-end Aaron Hernandez committing murder and taking his own life, have been linked to CTE, as both suffered from it. This increase of traumatic events has sparked more players to retire early.  

A major breakthrough by the University of Boston may change football forever.  The study attempted to find some sort of indicator in the brain that would allow diagnosis of CTE in living people.  “The BU team said it had discovered a new biomarker for CTE. The study found that levels of the biomarker, known as CCL11, were normal in the brains of the non-athlete control group and nonathletes with Alzheimer’s, but the levels were significantly higher in the brains of individuals with CTE.”  

This breakthrough could be the beginning of the end of football.  If people can go get a simple test and find out that they have a degenerative brain disease, they are likely to retire.  The study is still in preliminary stages and has a long way to go, but the next ten years of contact sports, specifically football will be very interesting.