Hard hits. Fast play. Excitement.
These are just a few words and phrases describing American football. Through the fall and winter months, televisions all across the country will be plastered with high school football on Fridays, college game day on Saturdays and the National Football League on Sundays.
Super Bowl XLIX demonstrated football’s popularity, as 115.2 millions viewers helped establish the most-watched event in American history.
Football also consistently brings in revenue far greater than any other sport. The NFL is estimated to bring in $17 billion in revenue this year. Seeing these staggering profits, one might assume American football is here to stay and remain our country’s top sport.
Any avid fans of the game, or maybe even non-fans, know about the scandals covering up the link between football and brain injuries in the NFL. In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu began researching the brains of former football players.
In his research, Omalu found a positive link between former professional football players and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain disease caused by repetitive brain trauma.
It isn’t difficult to see the relationship between the sport of football and CTE. Watch a game for five minutes and you see 300-pound men smashing into each other at full speed, using all their force to get the job done.
The connection seems clear.
When Omalu presented his findings to the NFL in 2007, his research was ignored. It was not until two years later that the NFL finally accepted CTE as an issue and began taking steps to repair the damage.
The NFL and football organizations around the world began allocating more resources toward protecting their players, beginning with concussion protocol. As the research became publicized, more people began to spin off Omalu’s work.
In 2015, researchers found that CTE was evident in 96 percent of deceased football players. It seems that at this point in time, if you play in the NFL there’s a very likely chance you’ll end up with CTE.
The symptoms of CTE are consistent with a concussion, but players worry more about how CTE affects mental stability. Multiple players in recent history — Junior Seau, David Russell Duerson and Ray Easterling — all committed suicide in the early half of the decade. Medical examiners linked their deaths to advanced CTE.
Despite all the research and findings in the past 15 years, the NFL is still going strong. Players understand the possible consequences they might face later in life, but they still suit up to seal multi-million dollar deals that will secure their family’s healthy living for generations.
The effects of the disease on football are coming at a much different level.
If you look back to when Omalu began his research, youth levels of football programs were booming with growth. More recently, participation in youth tackle football leagues has seen a decline.
From 2014 to 2015, USA Football reported that youth numbers in football dropped from 3.25 million to 3.21 million. A small margin, but a big warning sign for a sport that has historically been the fastest-growing in America.
Presented with evidence of declining participation, the NFL and USA Football have made serious changes to the game.
Programs from the top down are changing the way the sport is played, starting with tackling techniques and rules that limit where players can tackle an opposing player. Extensive research and development of helmets that limit the impact of blunt force to the head are also underway.
USA Football found that high schools and youth football organizations that employed a safety coach saw a steep decline in injury and concussion rates, compared to organizations that did not have one.
In 2016, youth football numbers continued growing, albeit marginally.
Football is important to many people. To watch the game fizzle away because of the lack of accountability by the NFL would be detrimental for many. It’s a fantastic game that has given people so much more than just CTE. It brings family and friends together. It gives opportunities to youth who might not have made it out of high school otherwise.
As fans, we need to encourage more research, reward safe play and provide more support to the youth of America in order to play the game correctly. There are ways to avoid this deadly disease, and with the right people doing the right thing, the game that I, and so many other people, love will be here to stay for generations.
Tanner Buss, ’18, is an associate sports editor for The Brown and White. He can be reached at [email protected]