Do you expect participation numbers to drop over the next decade?
Without a crystal ball, no one can predict what will happen as information about the dangers of concussions becomes more widely known. Some have
expressed concern over how recent concussion stories might impact grassroots growth of football. We expect—and hope—that sports participation continues
to rise. In a nation with obesity on the rise among its children, the benefits of sports are undeniable. We just hope that sports will continue to grow
in a safer way and that people will follow the emerging science as they make their individual decisions about whether they want their kids to play
collision sports like football.
You describe the outbreak of concussions an "exploding epidemic." But because we know that 20, 30, 40 years ago, concussions weren't reported as
frequently as they are now, is it possible the problem was just as great back then?
The sad reality is that a perfect storm of factors has fueled what is indeed an exploding epidemic: With the participation boom more than tripling over
the past two decades to 44 million Americans playing sports from youth leagues through high school, the raw numbers alone continue to feed this
burgeoning public health crisis. What's more, those athletes have grown increasingly bigger, stronger, and faster while the laws of physics have
remained constant—making head-rattling collisions less avoidable and more destructive. And beyond that, style of play has become ever more intense and
violent in both boys' and girls' sports: In football, for example, the advent of high-tech helmets has made players feel more invincible and enabled
tackling techniques that have stressed using the head as a battering ram; in soccer and basketball, the competition since Title IX has been
intensifying among girls, who are now suffering concussions at rates far greater than their male counterparts.
The NFL seems to be trying to legislate the most violent tackles—head shots, hits on "defenseless" receivers—out of the sport. Is that a step in
the right direction? And even if it is, is that kind of missing the point that the routine grind of football
—the repeated collisions, even ones that seem small—
can accumulate and cause serious damage?
The NFL has been taking baby steps in right direction ever since the 2009 congressional hearings criticizing its denial of the mounting evidence on
concussion dangers. Those include the rules changes you mentioned. But just as significant, as you noted, is the issue of repeated hits that don't
necessarily manifest in obvious concussion symptoms but can eventually add up to brain damage as evidenced in the dementia suffered by too many retired
players. The NFL attempted to deal with that issue this summer in its new collective bargaining agreement, now limiting the number and intensity of
full-contact practices during training camp, the regular season, and the offseason. We're happy to see this strategy also turning up at the college
level, and we applaud the Ivy League's recent rule limiting full-contact practices to less than half what the NCAA allows.