Can Science Save Football?
Or will an epidemic of traumatic brain injuries be its downfall?
Football is the most popular sport in the United States. Even for someone like me who doesn’t care about sports at all, I can see the attraction.
It’s a very physical sport. The players use their own bodies as blunt instruments, blocking, intercepting, and tackling their opponents.
But in recent years, it has come to light that this aggressive gameplay that has made football so appealing has contributed to traumatic brain injuries in its players.
Now participation rates in high school football are falling as athletes choose to pursue less dangerous activities.
So is football doomed?
Or could science save America’s most popular sport?
Dr. Ann McKee’s groundbreaking research into the human brain has garnered her near universal acclaim and notoriety and made her one of the preeminent neuropathologists in her field.
But she is first and foremost a football fan. Specifically, a Packers fan. A cheesehead with an affinity for brains.
But in 2011, her passion for football and her expertise with the human nervous system unexpectedly collided when former NFL defensive back and safety Dave Duerson sent her his brain.
Dave Duerson played in the NFL for 11 seasons.
He won two super bowl rings and in 1986 he set a record for most sacks in a season by a defensive back.
Duerson knew McKee had been doing research into Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE is a degenerative neurological disease most commonly found in people who have experienced brain injuries.
CTE can be caused by car crashes or bomb blasts or anything that replicates the kind of violent physical forces at work during these events.
On average, when a football player gets tackled, their body can experience over 100 Gs of force. That’s the equivalent of getting in a head-on collision in a car. Or taking a ride on a ballistic missile.
Over their career, players like Duerson experienced the equivalent of thousands of car crashes.
The human body is capable of surviving these forces if the experience is only brief. A football player won’t experience much damage if the force is spread out equally across his body.
But this isn’t the case if most of the force ends up on your head.
A concussion is a head injury that results in temporary loss of brain function — often due to a blow to the head.
Physicians going all the way back to the time of Theodore Roosevelt were well aware that football players were prone to these kinds of brain injuries.
But it wasn’t until 1994 when the NFL began seriously investigating traumatic brain injuries — though that research often underplayed the severity and frequency of concussions experienced by NFL players.
But the reality is that sustained and repeated concussions can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Common symptoms of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy are reduced or confused brain function similar to Alzheimer’s or dementia. Those afflicted with CTE can experience mood swings and depression. They demonstrate impulsive even aggressive behavior and often exhibit poor judgment.
And many are prone to suicide.
There have been several high profile suicides among former NFL players of late. The most recent being former tight end Aaron Hernandez who hanged himself while awaiting trial for murder. An autopsy later revealed that at the time of his death, Hernandez was suffering from an uncommonly severe case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy
For a long time the NFL denied that there was any link between football and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. The league often funded questionable research that seemed to indicate that concussions suffered during gameplay weren’t serious. They even went as far as to suggest that players who suffered a concussion and were kept in the game fared better than those who were taken off the field.
For years, even players like Dave Duerson disregarded the troubling warning signs of their own illness and sided with the league.
But thanks to researchers like McKee, mounting evidence to the contrary became impossible to ignore.
By the time Duerson’s brain landed in her lab, McKee had performed a number of autopsies on deceased NFL players and diagnosed CTE in dozens of them.
But there is no definitive way to diagnose these traumatic brain injuries in a living person. Doctors can look at their symptoms and make educated guess as to their cause but an autopsy must be performed and the brain must be physically examined.
Dave Duerson knew this.
So in February of 2011, Duerson took his own life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. One of his last actions on Earth was a text message to his family asking them to send his brain to Dr. McKee.
Since Dr. McKee began her work, 99% of all NFL players she has examined exhibited signs of CTE — Dave Duerson included.
And that number isn’t limited to professional football players. Autopsies of college and high school football players also displayed the same kind of brain damage.
Ever since news of these brain injuries reached the public, youth participation in football has been in decline. Parents concerned about safety are steering their children away from football into other sports. Additionally, professional football players are choosing to retire earlier in an effort to stave off any further brain damage. If this continues, America’s most popular sport might soon disappear for lack of players.
But could science save football?
The modern football helmet was designed to prevent skull fractures and brain hemorrhages. It doesn’t however do anything to stop concussions — the main cause of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
But newer helmets might be able to do just that.
If getting hit by a 250 pound linebacker is like getting hit by a car, it only makes sense to look to automotive design when developing a stronger, safer helmet.
That’s just what helmet manufacturer Vicis has done with the Zero1.
The Zero1 is a football helmet with crumple zones.
Cars are designed with crumple zones so that the force of a collision is absorbed in certain areas of the car’s body instead of your body. Traditional football helmets are made of hard rigid plastic. They don’t have any give. So when a player takes a hard hit to the helmet, the shock is immediate. The helmet stops moving, or even reverses directions, while the brain keeps moving forward due to inertia, effectively making the player’s brain collide with the interior of his own skull.
A helmet with crumple zones would slow down and spread out the effects of the impact so that the brain wouldn’t experience as much of a change in momentum and reduce the chances of a concussion.
But the Zero1 is much more expensive than a typical football helmet and its high price will probably keep it out of the hands of anyone without a contract with a professional football team.
In addition to new helmet designs, helmet manufacturer Riddell has developed a Head Impact Telemetry System or (HITS).
HITS is a network of accelerometers fixed to the football helmet.
Whenever a player takes a hit, the HITS system calculates the severity of the impact by measuring the G forces that the player’s head is subjected to. Since an acceleration of over 100 Gs increases the risk of concussion, HITS can notify sideline staff of these high-velocity impacts in real time, allowing them to take the player out of the game and evaluate him immediately. HITS can also calculate the location of the impact and keep track of the number of impacts a player takes during a game.
But HITS doesn’t prevent concussions and it hasn’t been widely adopted by much of the NFL
Researchers at UCLA and the University of Chicago are also working on methods of detecting CTE in living players. Since the build-up of neural proteins called Tau proteins can be a sign of CTE, using brain imaging technology to identify these proteins could give doctors a way to diagnosis traumatic brain injury before it has progressed too far.
While this technology has shown promise, it is still in the experimental stage and it doesn’t change the fact that the very mechanics of football cause brain damage.
Which means the game itself might have to change.
And it already has to some extent. The NFL has instituted new rules prohibiting certain types of hits that target the head or neck. If a player loses his helmet on the playing field, the play must immediately stop.
In 2010, the NFL moved the kickoff from the 30 yard line to the 35 yard line, reducing the amount of space between teams, therefore, reducing the amount of time the players had to get up to speed to make a tackle.
The kickoff has been called the most dangerous play of the game. The most concussions happen during a kickoff so reducing the amount of times a it happens during a game should reduce the number of concussions. But there is even talk of eliminating the kickoff entirely with Giants co-owner, John Mara, saying that the league may be evolving that way.
Losing the kickoff would be a huge change to football. It is a play often employed when the stakes are high and time is short. A last minute kickoff can be the difference between winning and losing. That makes it not only important to the strategy of many football teams, it is an exciting and iconic feature of the game.
But it’s also dangerous.
So the NFL has to decide what is more important: preserving gameplay as it is or safeguarding their player’s health.
Football has never been a nice sport — but it has always been evolving.
The first American football game was played in 1869 — just four years after the end of the civil war. To modern audiences, the game would’ve been mostly unrecognizable.
Even in those early days, football’s violent nature was a source of controversy. Serious injuries were common — even fatalities.
In 1905, the game suffered 19 deaths in a single year — a statistic so shocking at the time it prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to intervene and discuss ways of making the game safer.
The gameplay would be tweaked here and there throughout the first half of the 20th century, making it safer and more enjoyable. Slowly football began to resemble something like the sport we see today.
Change has been a constant force in football’s history. It has propelled it forward and given it the momentum to become the number one sport in america. It would be risky for football to stop changing now. As so many human brains have taught us, the chance of injury is greatest when an object’s momentum brings it into contact with a rigid, opposing force.
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