Why Football Must Get Safer

If new rules aren't enough to protect players, the game could fade away. Parents will increasingly keep kids out of the sport rather than expose them to the risk.
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A football helmet's health warning sticker is pictured between a U.S. flag and the number 55, in memory of former student and NFL player Junior Seau. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Chad Washington had a lot at stake during that practice back in 2008. A sophomore at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, California, he was already a starting player on the school’s varsity team. That season, the team was as yet undefeated.

The after-school practice had already been going for around 45 minutes; the coaches had run through the warm-ups and the special teams drills. It was a beautiful, warm afternoon in the Bay Area, with the sun still high in the sky above the football fields.

Next up was the LSU hitting drill, named after a routine conceived at Louisiana State University. Set up on the goal line, it involves one defensive player and two offensive players. One of the offensive players stands about a yard away from the defensive player, ready to block him, and the other runs the ball and attempts to score.

"They call Blake Johnson up, who was a junior linebacker," Washington said. "Some real big white guy, number 55." Washington was not exactly a small guy—he was already more than 6 feet tall, and weighed 205 pounds. But Johnson, who stood almost eye-to-eye with Washington, was pushing 250 pounds.

Johnson was put on defense. Washington, usually a defensive lineman, was called on to run the ball; his coaches wanted to try him on offense. Washington, unsure of what he was doing in this unfamiliar position, grabbed the ball. The whistle blew.

"He just completely tackles me, just lays me out," Washington said. Johnson got his helmet under Washington’s chin, jerking Washington’s head back and throwing his whole body backwards with the momentum. He closed his eyes and bit down hard on his mouthpiece as he took the blow and fell back.

"I look up and he’s standing over me," Washington said. "It was real bright, and everybody was screaming.” He staggered to his feet, dazed and winded. He felt his coach grab him and throw him into the end zone. He was up again, this time on defense.

"The first time, he blocked me, I couldn't even really go. So then my coach grabbed me again and threw me in there and said 'Go again.'" This time he got off the block and made the tackle. From the time he was hit to the time he completed the drill, nobody asked him if he was okay.

Practice continued for another hour. Washington pushed through, not wanting to jeopardize his place on the starting team.

"Why would I want to say, 'Oh, my head hurts, I don't want to practice'?" Washington said. "If you take yourself out of practice because you're hurt you have to expect not to play in the game." As far as he was concerned, this was too high a price.

By the end of practice Washington could tell something was really wrong. "I took my helmet off and my head was throbbing," he said. He went to the team trainer and told her about his headache. She asked him to take the concussion test. He failed it.

***

Washington's concussion is just one among thousands sustained by high-school football players every year. It's hard to pin down exactly how many—somewhere between the 25,376 emergency-room visits for football concussions tallied up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the estimate of 1.6 to 3.8 million sports-related concussions nationwide cited by physicians in their studies of the subject.

Steadily, football-related concussions—mostly at the National Football League (NFL) level, but also among younger players—have gotten more and more attention. Over the past decade, the media has publicized numerous studies revealing the dangers of the high-impact sport. Reports of suicides of former NFL stars, including Dave Duerson of the Chicago Bears and Junior Seau of the San Diego Chargers, have been splashed across the front of newspapers, accompanied by revelations that their brains showed clear signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head.

This summer the furor came to a climax as the concussion lawsuit brought against the NFL by more than 4,500 former players and their families was settled. The league agreed to pay $765 million with the understanding that the settlement should not be regarded as an admission of guilt. The deal was widely viewed as a win for the NFL, and professional football's popularity certainly hasn't suffered. A week later more than 25 million viewers tuned in to watch the season opener, a five percent increase on the previous year.

But the concussion issue hasn't gone away. On September 16, Damon Janes, a 16-year-old running back at Brocton High School in New York, died following a helmet-to-helmet collision. A total of 39 high-schoolers died between 2000 and 2012 as a direct result of injuries sustained on the football field.

Football's popularity at the high-school level is slowly diminishing, with participation numbers decreasing each year since the 2008-2009 season, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. It's too early to tell for sure, but this may be a result of concerned parents questioning the wisdom of allowing their child to play such a dangerous sport. If this trend continues high-school football, a key feeder in the NFL pipeline, will have to adapt if it wants to survive.

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Isobel Markham is a multimedia journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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