Upsetting news happened this week in the world of sports that could drastically change a sport like no other. There is even the possibility of ending its life sooner than we thought. It was reported on May 2nd, 2011, that Dave Duerson, a former Chicago Bears linebacker suffered from the brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or commonly referred to as CTE at his time of death. Duerson, at only 50 years old, shot himself in the chest to end his life but in doing so preserved his brain because he wanted it to be donated for scientific research into his condition.
This condition was linked directly to the violence that the member of the Bears '85 championship winning defense, suffered over years and years of football in the NFL. The trauma was brought on by the constant impact of the game when helmets and shoulder pads were still being fine tuned. This in turn resulted in constant headaches and increased memory loss as time went on. Even at the time of his passing he made an extraordinary contribution that will eventually save lives and prevent people from enduring the pain he went through. He included a letter to donate his brain to scientific research with the intention of helping prevent his fellow and future NFL brothers from suffering the same pains he did. The results were very disturbing, as his brain suffered from serious tissue damage and it was found to be a direct result from all the impact suffered from playing professional football.
This would not be as shocking had it only been this isolated case, however for almost two decades now we've been seeing more and more issues of this sort come to light. In January 2006 Terry Long drank anti-freeze at the age of 46 resulting in his death. It was deemed that football injuries were only a contributing factor to his death, not the only factor. However the fact that it showed some kind of relation to the condition was a sign and we failed to see it.
This time however with Duerson, a shockwave was sent through the football community. With the increased head injuries in football, and now all over hockey as well, it brings a serious question to every parent's mind of this generation and going forward. Countless NHL players have been forced to retire from serious head injuries, most notably Eric Lindros, Scott Stevens, Mike Richter, and Keith Primeau. These players had careers cut short, or shorter than they would have liked, because the injuries to their heads would not go away. Troy Aikman has been well documented as suffering from constant headaches and migraines during his post-football life, from the numerous concussions he suffered during his hall of fame career.
Here is where the debate can begin, are players getting softer? Is it their fault for hitting improperly?
At the end of the day we must all take notice especially the professional leagues, but also the minor systems as well. First of all don't put children into contact leagues too young. If you think about some pros who talk about playing football since pee-wee, they've been playing since they were around five years old. You could be playing contact football for over a decade by the time you reach the NFL where you will undoubtedly face the fiercest and most violent hits you've ever experienced.
Now before we get too far into this discussion I don't want to sound like I'm against football. I love the sport and the brand and I would never want anything to happen to it. College and NFL football provide me with extremely entertaining weekends in the fall and early winter months. However I want to make sure that these players are kept safe and not sacrificing themselves entirely for our entertainment.
Back to the issue of playing since you could walk, perhaps that is a simple solution to help reduce the impact of this violent and competitive game. If players were not allowed to make contact until later years (hockey for example delays contact in the sports until early teens in Canada and the USA) then perhaps these conditions would be reduced. Introducing flag football as the first version of football while children are still young, growing, and developing physically could help them in the future. This allows children to learn the rules, style of play and get an idea of the game without suffering the consequences.
Now is this the protective approach? Yes, but what if it worked? I've seen numerous specials on ESPN about children playing high school football, having the world at their finger tips then one concussion happens and they “tough it out” and then it happens again and their world crumbles in either paralysis, or sometimes irreversible brain damage. There is risk in everything I will agree, but with more and more information coming to light we cannot ignore it. Did we ignore it when we found out that drinking and driving was a lethal combination? Absolutely not, we made it law that you cannot drink and drive at the same time not only for your own safety but also for other drivers out on the roads. Do people still do it? Of course, people will always make their own choices, however the knowledge and attempts made to limit these actions are great and I would not have it any other way.
The key when absorbing new information is to analyze and be rational about it at first. This is a game that all of North America loves, the Super Bowl is the biggest single day sporting event on the planet by a long shot. It was reported that for the 2011 Super Bowl average viewership was 111 million people, so clearly we cannot erase the game from our playlist. But we can make efforts to improve or modify it, make it less hazardous to the people playing it for a living but still bringing the athleticism and intensity that we love. Introducing the hitting aspect later in life is one good suggestion because you have all of high school to learn how to hit and be physical. Children should be happy innocent children, let them enjoy the sand box and swing set.
Mike Ditka make the remark earlier in the year of removing the helmet from the game, if the players have less protection of themselves they may be more hesitant to inflict pain upon others. Now I'm not sure if I would go so far as to remove the helmet, but look at it from this angle. Over the last 10 years helmet research and production has increased dramatically. Riddell may be the official helmet of the NFL but Schutt is also making its mark as players are becoming more and more aware of the concern for head injuries and making sure they are protected.
When I was at a Dick's this past summer I was looking at the helmets to see what the pros wear, just how it works. Those things are massive, it's like wearing a bomb shelter on your head, no wonder they're so tempted to lead with it. That issue in itself could be a major problem, I've heard it discussed before that the safer and more durable the helmet is, the more tempted a player will be to use that helmet as a tool out on the field. By looking at the way players were launching themselves at each other on the field this past season I think the last thing they need is help with their impact hits, they're already felt.
What about reducing other pieces of equipment? Well player's already don't wear every piece of equipment, at least a lot of them don't. I notice it in pictures and live games all the time on TV that not every player wears the knee pads, thigh pads, has oddly small shoulder pads. So the padding isn't there and yet they're still pummeling their co-workers, I mean opponents.
So it must be a mentality in sports then, because these guys had monster padding in the 80's and early 90's and yet we see injury after injury these days. So maybe it's not in the padding, minus the industrial strength helmets. Maybe it is about the messages we send to our young athletes, to our kids and how they play the game. I know when I have children I will want them to play hard, play fierce and always play to win (while having fun, kind of). But I will never teach them to win at the expense of another player's well being, winning has a cost and it's the long term safety of your opponent.
At the end of the day the player's need to look out for each other while still maintaining the integrity of the game and that is where the fine line is drawn. Chop-blocking was made illegal because it is a harmful play that can end a player's career. The player's are in the sport and business of playing football, not hurting people for money. They must remember that to win doesn't always mean to be the strongest, toughest, or inflicting more injury. You can win with strategy, integrity and ultimately passion.
I and many other fans still want to see the hits, the scores and the runs but not at any cost. I want these players to respect themselves and each other, we have the technology to see that change must happen and like in many more important instances in history, we must work towards change. Making the game safer is not the same as making it worse, it just makes it different and we can all agree our differences is also what can make us stronger, and ultimately safer.
For another angle, here's an article about the NFL's Safety Hypocrisy in the 2011 Bears-Vikings Icebowl.
Thanks to David Preston of Preston Sports for this article about how to make football safer.
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