PD Editorial: Football must change to protect players and the sport

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As players of all levels strap on helmets and begin drills for the upcoming season, an ominous presence has emerged on every football field — the truth. Given the mountain of evidence, there’s simply no way to rationally deny that football is bad for brains of all ages.

The most recent report on the topic was particularly damning. In a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that 110 of 111 deceased former NFL players whose brains were donated for research suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The study further found that CTE wasn’t just in the brains of NFL players. Researchers also examined players whose top level of competition was the Canadian Football League, college or even just high school. Among them, a dismaying number had CTE.

CTE is a degenerative brain disease typically caused by head impacts. People who suffer from it are more likely to suffer from dementia and Parkinson’s disease and have behavioral or mood disorders. Fans and NFL owners may be tempted to write this off as a choice. Stars earn millions every year, and the rest of the players don’t do too shabbily. The minimum annual salary for a rookie in the NFL is now nearly $500,000. They risk their bodies, but they are compensated well to do so.

But most players, at least until very recently, weren’t making informed choices. The NFL for decades ignored and even suppressed studies related to concussions. Meanwhile, a $1 billion settlement with former players has yet to be paid. A few years ago, it pledged $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for brain research. Then it wound up paying less than half of that, and a Congressional study found the league exerted inappropriate pressure on the research that was funded. It wasn’t until last year that the NFL even acknowledged a link between football-related head trauma and CTE.

While all of that is inexcusable, NFL players represent just a fraction of the players at risk. NFL teams have fewer than 2,000 players total. By some estimates, more than 1 million high schoolers and 70,000 college students play football. Many more participate in younger leagues where the contact is not as great but the risk of harm is significant.

Those are the players for whom the sport must change. Football is a contact sport, to be sure, but more work is needed on tightening and enforcing rules to avoid the most dangerous hits. More important, coaches need to put greater emphasis on tackling methods that are meant to keep players’ heads away from impact while showing zero tolerance for helmet-to-helmet tackling and spearing. They also must commit to abide by rigorous concussion protocols. An injured brain takes time to heal. That may mean benching a star player despite the protests of the player and possibly his parents. But the biggest adjustment will need to come from spectators, whose roaring approval for bone-rattling head-to-head collisions has put players’ lives at risk. Fans, as with those on the field, need to accept that there is no longer a place for such contact in football — if football is to have a future at all.

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