Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be football players

The PBS Frontline program League of Denial says that traumatic brain injury can occur even from the normal give and take of playing football, even without any concussions. You can watch the program here.

These sub-concussive impacts that are inherent in the game can over time add up to serious injury. The above link has a short clip of a 21-year old player who had never had anything that was diagnosed as a concussion but killed himself. An autopsy showed that his brain had suffered serious trauma called chronic trauma encephalopathy (CTE). Neuropathologist Ann McKee describes the four stages of this disease. In stage 1, there are no symptoms. In stage 2, people experience rage, impulsivity, and depression. In stage 3, they have confusion and memory loss. Stage 4 is advanced dementia.

CTE brain

I wrote last month about how the NFL, a massive business that makes huge amounts of money and pays its executives lavishly (though it outrageously has the status of a non-profit organization), has tried to suppress information about the dangers of the game and pressured ESPN to withdraw cooperation from the production of the program.

You can expect the NFL to pull out all its massive public relations apparatus to fight the negative publicity arising from this documentary. It does not care about the health of young people, even if they die at an early age or are incapacitated. They only care about making money.

I stopped watching football long ago for other reasons but this has convinced me that it is so dangerous that schools and colleges should not field teams, let along glamorize it the way they do. If adults choose to form leagues and kill or otherwise destroy themselves there is little that we can do about it. But there is no reason for schools and colleges to collude with the NFL to lure young people into this dangerous activity.

Neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, the first doctor to diagnose CTE in a football player, said that an NFL doctor privately told him what the implications of his findings were. He said, “If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.”

I hope that all parents watch this program.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    It’s not just North American football. I remember being shocked to hear of the coroner’s finding in soccer player Jeff Astle‘s death.

    He had been an exceptional header of the ball, and the coroner found that the repeated minor trauma had been the cause of his death, as the leather footballs used in Astle’s playing days were considerably heavier than the plastic ones of today, especially when wet.

    I remember those leather balls from my childhood. Ouch. Even with the plastic balls, there could be cumulative effects from thousands upon thousands of minor impacts. The problem is that when you head the ball ‘properly’, i.e. with forehead, you feel very little impact. Probably misleading.

  2. busterggi says

    I’ve never played football – one of the few benefits of being the last kid picked in gym class is the rest of the team makes sure you stay out of play.

    On the other hand I have accumulated enough concussions via accidents so that it has affected my memory, that last fall off a porch while doing a lead inspection back in the late ’90’s when I landed headfirst on brick pavement did it. Its freaky – I have difficulty with remembering names, any names but only names so that a word used as a descriptor blanks me out when its used as a name, I can remember elm trees on a street but if the name of the street is Elm Street there’s a good chance I won’t remember that.

    I recommend against brain damage in general.

  3. mnb0 says

    I love football – the worldwide version, not the American version that should be called handegg.
    It has been known for decades that heading a ball can cause injuries:

    Alas, no English version. Hersenschudding is Dutch for concussion. No wonder, balls can have speeds up to 100 km/h.

  4. left0ver1under says

    The following story appeared in the news a year ago. I immediately could no longer justify watching football of any sort, and stopped cold turkey.

    The coaches didn’t stop the game, neither when the “mercy rule” should have been nor when one team ran out of uninjured players. But worse than that, the “parents” did nothing to stop it. They watched as their sons continuted to be hurt, afraid of being judged for showing good judgement.

    Neuropathologist Bennet Omalu […] said, “If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.”

    If a parent shakes a baby, we call that person a criminal. So why don’t we take the same view when parents push pre-teen children into violent contact sports, where kids “get their bell rung” before their brains and skulls are fully developed?

    An adult playing professionally knows the risk, and it can be argued that college players and teenagers do. But young children (under sixteen) lack the knowledge and perspective to make long term informed judgements like that. In a few decades there will be people with CTE who never played past age 15, and everyone responsible will be old or dead and not face any consequences.

    Eventually, football will have to change the game or the source of player talent will end. That likely means changing the equipment (e.g. foam padding like martial artists use) or weight limits for teams (e.g. the 11 players have a maximum total weight, as in tug-of-war). The only other solution I see is NO contact, turning it into flag football.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    10% of the mothers wouldn’t be enough, though. Educated mothers already are against it, and that’s well over 10% already.

    You need to get to the mothers of kids who are inclined to play football anyway. And even then, do the mothers actually have enough influence in the family to overrule the dad if he wants his son to play?

    Money talks loudest, though. To really end college football, you’d need to end the big money that’s involved, which means people would have to stop watching it. I’d love to see that happen, but I doubt it will.

  6. colnago80 says

    I don’t think that the folks here realize how imbedded in the culture football is in small rural towns, especially in the South. In places like the more rural areas of
    Texas, football is almost a religion.

  7. smrnda says

    I’ve heard concerns over heading the ball in what the rest of the world calls football, still a risk but quite an improvement over the US version, and if you can outlaw the use of hands, some have suggested outlawing heading the ball just as a safety measure.

    The problem with his 10% remark is that we probably already have more than that, just that still leaves 90% of mothers (and fathers) willing to let their kids get into a dangerous game. And as said above, US style football is HUGE in some areas, and I suspect that even lots of brain damage and injuries isn’t going to turn people away from football there. The best move would be colleges demanding a new set or rules – I mean, other sports have had similar changes for safety, the only issue would be that it might dry up the market. O well.

  8. jellyrajah says

    If this is the case, I have a feeling it will be very difficult to convince them of the dangers of allowing their children to play.

  9. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    The material of the ball doesn’t matter much. It’s power to injure comes from the kick, and with modern training methods and high tech shoes that power has only increased.

  10. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    As an afterthought… the kids should be made to compute the impact of the ball using basic physics. Those who pass the test may play – if they still want to.

  11. machintelligence says

    I have heard reports (all anecdotal) that improvements in the safety equipment, especially helmets, have allowed coaches to tell players to “lead with your head” when tackling. Bad advice if there ever was such a thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *