Will Concussions Kill Football?


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After I initially took the hit, I tried to shake it off and just was getting hit and dazed a little bit. But then physically I could not see. After that, we just pushed through it and tried to finish the drive. Then when everything was done, it all kind of hit me.

Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist

The debate over the impact of repeated head trauma on the lives of football players can no longer really be called a debate. It is a widely accepted fact that head trauma can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that can cause depression and dementia and has in many cases led to suicide. It is a fact that more than 20 former pro football players have been found—at their autopsies—to have had CTE.

And it is a fact that football is by definition a game in which large, athletic men crash into one another at high speeds. Short of scoring a touchdown or going out of bounds, it's the only way a play can end.

The suicide of former University of Pennsylvania football captain Owen Thomas in April and the death of an 11-year old football player in Wisconsin earlier this month have raised two other theories about CTE. And if they're proven true, they could have a chilling effect on football in America. First, people can develop CTE without ever sustaining a diagnosable concussion. Thomas never experienced any concussion-like systems, leading experts to believe that his CTE came from repeated "routine" blows to the head, the same kind of Hard Knocks beloved by football fans across the country.

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Second, the disease can manifest at a frighteningly young age. Thomas was just 21 when he hanged himself in his off-campus apartment. And though the 11-year old's cause of death has yet to be determined, the specter of CTE looms large.

After a long, seemingly intractable battle between the National Football League and medical researchers over the correlation among head trauma, CTE, and football, the issue has finally garnered widespread media attention. There have been testimonials from former NFL players, closer looks at responses to possible concussions, and dogged and comprehensive reporting by the New York Times' Alan Schwarz.

The coverage has been good, albeit a little belated. But Schwarz and the others are to some degree missing the larger point. Throw in one last fact—that as of now CTE can only be diagnosed after death—and you arrive at a cultural hypothesis: If the NFL, NCAA, and other football bodies do not take serious action right now to combat the constant, destructive head trauma that is as much a football staple as the extra point, the sport could face a massive decline in popularity and relevance over the next 20 to 30 years.

Before you scoff, consider: If all of the above is true, football players risk contracting a debilitating, undetectable, often deadly disease without showing any external symptoms. And they do so simply by showing up to play every day. If as a parent you were faced with that fact, would you allow your son to play Pop Warner football at age six? Would you let your kid fall in love with football, or let him try out for varsity, or let him practice with his friends in the backyard knowing that each hit could damage his brain a little bit more?

It's quite possible your answer is yes (and for some of you, I'm sure it's an emphatic and unqualified yes.) But if even 25 percent of parents keep their kids out of youth football leagues, the loss of talent will gradually creep from Friday to Saturday to Sunday.

Of course, any number of factors could mitigate the danger of CTE (such as a way to test the living for it). And even if there were a gradual exodus from football, it would take decades to affect the highest levels of the game. But if nothing is done in the face of a mountain of medical evidence and a growing litany of obituaries, it's a scenario that needs to be acknowledged.

The suggestions of how to limit head trauma have been as plentiful as they would be ineffective. Plentiful, because everyone and their fantasy football partner seemingly has the answer. Get rid of the three-point stance for offensive lineman, improve helmet technology, curtail physical contact in practice—the list goes on. Ineffective, because all these well-meaning solutions fail to address the systemic problem: Football and violence are inextricably linked.

If you watch football with any regularity, you know that it's true, that big hits are as popular as big runs and quarterback sacks are worthier of SportsCenter than quarterback scrambles. If you don't watch, read this article by my Atlantic colleague Hampton Stevens. Or just read this excerpt:

Football tells us that violence can be beautiful when performed for the sake of a greater good. As American society has become more genteel, that premise has become a cultural fault line—the assumption from which all other assumptions flow. You either believe violence can, in fact, be beautiful, or you don't. More specifically, you either think that football is a relatively harmless, darned entertaining outlet for the human need to compete, or, frankly, you just haven't been paying attention.

Violence, for good and ill, is the beauty of it. Except perhaps boxing, no other sport asks so much. That's why people pay to see it.

He's right, of course. But boxing has faded out of the American consciousness over the last 20 years as our best athletes decided to try a sport where they had less chance of dying in the ring or earning Parkinson's as their pension, Muhammad Ali-style. No doubt we would all find something else to watch if the same fate befell football.