The L.A. Times published an article a couple days ago about an unnamed, former college football player who passed away recently. The 25 year old played football for 16 years, suffered more than 10 diagnosed concussions, and eventually quit playing when his post-concussive symptoms (headaches, blurry vision, insomnia, anxiety etc.) wouldn’t go away. He spent the rest of his short life struggling with depression, chronic pain and anxiety, quit school, and started abusing his wife. Sound at all familiar? The autopsy performed after his death revealed a brain riddled with the protein build-up seen in Alzheimer’s patients and football players, he was one of the youngest to make the growing list of football players with CTE.
It is terrifying to see evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) affecting people as young as the LA man. Terrifying, but not all that shocking. Kids often start playing tackle football as early as elementary school. Even if they don’t go on to college level play, that can add up to 10 years of accumulated hits--a decade’s worth of minor to severe brain injuries.
For a mental image of the resulting damage, put an apple in a mason jar, and shake the jar. This is the example of how your brain moves within your skull used in the recent movie Concussion, a portrayal of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s research on the deadly, degenerative disease, CTE, in the brains of NFL players. Feel free to make applesauce from the resulting mash, if you can stomach it.
Sure, football is exciting to watch, something that brings together great friends and starts Sunday bar fights, but is it worth the risk? Less and less parents seem to think so, as football participation has been dropping in the recent years. In fact, a WSJ/NBC poll from 2014 revealed 40% of Americans would encourage their children to play a sport other than football in light of concussion concerns.
Another risk though, is that concerned parents, and other societal or economic factors, may be reducing how active youth are altogether. Inactivity, as we know, can lead to health related issues, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and decreased mental health, and make children more likely struggle with these issues for the rest of their lives. Exercise improves the lives of youth and adults alike, contributing to positive physical and mental health, and general well-being.
Instead of lamenting the loss of our national pride and joy, let’s look to the future of sports in America, and be grateful for the science that has shed light on the the skeletons in football’s closet. Though the NFL is unlikely to deteriorate in the way a brain suffering from CTE does, that does not mean the next generation has to fall into their deadly trap.
With newer sports on the rise, like ultimate, populated by young, open-minded, and caring athletes, there are more and more opportunities for young people to get outside and stay active, without their brains turning to applesauce.