Read: The white flight from football
To that end, in a 1952 New England Journal of Medicine article, Thorndike recommended limits on how many brain injuries athletes might sustain in their careers. He advised that athletes cease any exposure to body-contact trauma, such as football, after sustaining three concussions or experiencing more than momentary loss of consciousness at any one time. Thorndike added that “the college health authorities are conscious of the pathology of the ‘punch-drunk’ boxer.” His guidance was clearly intended to prevent such serious harms, and his recommendations were just as clearly ignored. Many young players sustained multiple concussive hits throughout their careers. They were in many cases sent back out onto the field nearly immediately after suffering brain-injury symptoms. Brain injuries were frequently minimized as “seeing stars” or “getting your bell rung.”
After World War II, football programs expanded to include even younger children, of elementary- and middle-school age. By 1956, The New York Times estimated that nearly 100,000 children were playing on tackle-football teams; the athletes ranged from 60-pound 7-year-olds to 160-pound teenagers.
Educators and doctors decried this trend throughout the 1950s. In 1953, attendees at a National Education Association conference voted to ban football and other contact sports for children ages 12 and younger. In 1957, the American Academy of Pediatrics similarly concluded that “body-contact sports, particularly tackle football and boxing, are considered to have no place in programs for children of this age.” While the academy may have had some success in limiting boxing matches for young children, administrators and coaches paid this guidance very little heed when it came to football. By 1964, the Pop Warner conference, a youth football league, estimated that more than half a million boys ages 7 to 15 were playing the sport under its auspices.
By the second half of the 20th century, then, many Americans boys were no longer simply playing four years of high-school football. Rather, they first enrolled in the sport at age 7 or 8 and played for at least a decade. Practice after practice, game after game, and season after season, they were subjected to repeated full-body collisions under the watchful eye of adult leaders and to the cheers of adult spectators. But the basic principles of physics continue to haunt the sport.
The rules in tomorrow’s Super Bowl will differ from those in place more than a century ago, but full-body impacts remain the essence of the sport and the major source of its dangers. The cycle of concern and denial continues: Barack Obama convened a White House summit on football-related brain injuries; his successor, Donald Trump, is a former United States Football League franchise owner who believes the NFL’s crackdown on certain hits is “ruining the game.” But the evidence of football’s harms is stronger than ever. And because children do not have full capacity to weigh the long-term risks of repetitive brain trauma, the fundamental question is: Are the risks of tackle football acceptable for adults to impose upon children?
If the current debate about concussions is to yield a safer outcome for kids than more than a century of similar conversations has, it must involve a much deeper acknowledgment of what researchers—and, really, everyone else—have already known for decades: Repeated collisions are not safe for human bodies or brains.