Gullixson: Time to change football as we know it

If change is going to occur, it’s certainly not going to come from the NFL, which begins another season today, a season that, despite the CTE concerns, is expected to generate nearly $14 billion in revenue.|

Nobody will suggest that I made a lasting impact on the game of football - other than, perhaps, that spectacular divot I left in the end zone of a Redwood City football field.

That occurred the opening game of my senior year when I dove for a kick returner - with visions of dropping him for a safety - only to end up with a sizable piece of turf wedged in my face mask. This fleet-footed player from Sequoia High School, after fumbling the kickoff, somehow managed to evade my grasp and race down the sideline 101 yards for a touchdown. The worst part was I was the containment man, and it was my job not to let that exact thing happen.

I managed to redeem myself enough that season to earn three green stars on my helmet - stickers that the coach gave out to whomever he named as a player of the week. But those weren’t the only stars I remember seeing that year.

Take the time I shot the gap on a quarterback blitz only to run headlong into a man-sized fire hydrant from Peterson High School, who happened to be carrying the ball. I’m told I tackled him. I don’t recall. In the terminology of the day, I had “my bell rung.” All I remember was my teammates slapping me on my helmet, which, in terms of regaining my cognitive abilities, was not helping one bit.

I left the game with fond memories. But I also came away with a key realization: Football is a really stupid game. It is not just a contact sport. It is a collision and contusion sport. And it is a concussion sport.

Yes, I love the game. I watch it whenever I can, or at least I used to. But it has evolved into a gladiator sport - and we are all ignoring the simple truth: The game as we know it has to change, significantly.

If you’re not persuaded, see the movie “Concussion,” concerning the true story of Nigerian-born forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith) and how he came to discover the neurological deterioration known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

His research began in 2002 when Omalu was assigned to do the autopsy of Hall of Fame center “Iron Mike” Webster, a member of the great Pittsburgh Steeler teams of the 1970s.

Webster died at the age of 50 after chronic problems of substance abuse and homelessness. The NFL sought to diminish Omalu’s findings and argue that CTE was not a big threat. But even the entire NFL with all of its girth, money and public support hasn’t been able to hold back the truth.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this summer found that nearly 88 percent of all the brains of deceased former players (CTE can only be diagnosed after death) suffered from the neurological deterioration. Of the 111 brains of deceased former NFL players, 110 had CTE.

But this is not just an NFL issue. The study found that three of ?14 players who had played only in high school had CTE, and 48 of ?53 players who played only in college had it.

“(The) fact that we were able to gather this many cases says this disease is much more common than we previously realized,” noted Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at VA Boston Healthcare System, director of the CTE Center at the BU School of Medicine and senior author of the study.

Leagues from the NFL on down have responded by adopting strong concussion protocols, strengthening penalties for hitting “defenseless” players in the head or face mask, improving training, encouraging safer tackling techniques and improving helmet design and equipment.

But as Dr. Ty Affleck, medical director of Santa Rosa Sports and Family Medicine in Santa Rosa, and Dr. Robert Nied a physician with Kaiser Permanente Family and Sports Medicine in Santa Rosa, wrote in a Close to Home column last week (“Injury shows ongoing risks of football,” Sept. 3), these improvements “have yielded disappointing results when studied critically.”

Affleck and Nied, both of whom serve on the board of North Coast Concussion Management, observed that there is “no protective device, technique or medicinal supplement” that can prevent concussions.

“The most successful approach to decreasing concussion rates is simply limiting exposure to risk,” they wrote.

The risk was demonstrated yet again on Aug. 25 when a 17-year-old Fortuna High School player collapsed on the sideline during a game at Cardinal Newman High School as a result of a traumatic brain injury. Affleck and Nied noted that “early reports are consistent with second-impact syndrome,” which can occur when an athlete suffers a second blow to the head before an earlier injury is fully healed.

There’s no shortage of ideas of how to make the game and equipment safer.

But most of it is just shuffling the deck chairs of a sinking ship. The sport has to change in some dramatic form, as in eliminating helmets and shoulder pads - shifting to something more like rugby - or maybe shifting to flag football, at least in leagues in high school and younger. If not, the game may fade away on its own accord, a victim of increasing liability costs and decreasing participation. Studies show participation in high school football dropped another 3 percent nationwide last year and is down 10 percent over the past decade. Some schools have or are on the verge of dropping their football programs altogether.

If change is going to occur, it’s certainly not going to come from the NFL, which begins another season today, a season that, despite the CTE concerns, is expected to generate nearly $14 billion in revenue, up more than 50 percent from just seven years ago.

No, if change is going to come it needs to happen at the high school level and younger leagues. And it needs to start with the realization that we are entertaining ourselves by watching and encouraging kids to participate in a sport that puts them at tremendous risk - risks that we don’t yet fully understand.

That’s a truth that should have everyone’s head ringing.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at

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