The title of this article is something I have been asking myself lately, especially with all the former players who are being diagnosed with dementia and ALS. Today alone former San Francisco 49ers receiver Dwight Clark and Chicago Bears legend Gayle Sayers were diagnosed with dementia. I cannot without a doubt say that football caused it, but there is a ton of evidence that is very hard to ignore.
Even beyond the players reportedly receiving diagnoses of brain ailments on a regular basis, my biggest concern with all of this is the fact that I have two sons that will be playing high school football this year. As a father, my first instinct is of course to protect my children, but I don’t want to be overprotective, either.
So the question I ask is: Can the game be made safer? My answer to that question is that I think it can be done, but can it be made safe enough? Let us look at some things that can be done to help.
Eliminate Youth Football
Before the age of 14, there is a size disparity between a child’s head and body, which causes what concussion experts call a “bobble-head” effect — the head snaps back dramatically after it is hit, which will cause the brain to move around inside of the youth’s head.
Children under 14 years of age have big heads on fragile necks, and that combination sets up the brain for the possibility of greater injury.
However, around age 14, a child’s skull develops to about 90% the size of an adult’s, with the neck and body strong enough to be able to better protect the head against the force of a blow. The more developed and strengthened the neck muscles, the less dramatically the head (and thus the brain) is rocked after a tackle or a block.
You also have the issue of brain development,\ and a protein called myelin. Myelin acts as insulation, a sort of buffer, to protect nerve fibers in the brain. By the age of 14, children have a better-myelinated brain which makes them less vulnerable to injury.
Another factor to consider is the lack of quality coaching in youth football. The NFL has the heads-up initiative to try and train youth coaches in the area of concussions. The problem is the program is a joke. The test you take anybody could pass.
As usual, “heads-up football” is just the NFL’s way of paying lip-service to an enormous problem. If you have been to a youth football practice and seen the stupid hitting drills they do, you know what I mean. Most of these coaches are parents and don’t have the training or ability to coach youth football players in the techniques required for the game. NFL Hall of Fame coach John Madden said this about youth football “I’m a firm believer that there’s no way that a six-year-old should have a helmet on and learn a tackling drill,” Madden said. “There’s no way. Or a seven-year-old or an eight-year-old. They’re not ready for it. Take the helmets off kids. . . . Start at six years old, seven years old, eight years old, nine years old. They don’t need a helmet. They can play flag football. And with flag football, you can get all the techniques. Why do we have to start with a six-year-old who was just potty trained a year ago and put a helmet on him and tackle? . . We’ll eventually get to tackling.”
I know people that defend youth football will say you have to teach the game at a young age to get the techniques down, but I say that is just not correct. I am a private football coach, and when I get a parent who brings me a kid that has never played before, I get excited because I can teach the child the skills for his position. With kids that have played a number of years, the first concern is to correct what the youth coaches have taught the players in the past.
CFL Rules on the Defensive Line
For strictly NFL fans who may not know what I am talking about in the CFL, the neutral zone makes it mandatory that the defensive line is lined up a full yard off the ball. Doing it this way makes for a lot fewer head-on collisions at the line of scrimmage. Will it affect the game? Yes, but I think just slightly – and wouldn’t it be worth it if the game were made even a little bit safer?
Create a Licensing Board
It may seem weird to use something boxing uses for safety, but it is needed in the NFL. The NFL already has baseline testing for players, so why not once a year, whether they get hurt or not, bring the players into license them and make sure there have been no changes in the last year. Sure, this would be expensive but the NFL has the money, and God knows they don’t spend it on retired players, so how about helping players before they retire?
Players *must* sit out the following game after suffering a concussion
How many times have you seen a player stagger off the field, only to learn that he had passed concussion protocol yet was allowed to play the very next week? I know the NFL would probably never implement this rule because what if a Tom Brady got a concussion and couldn’t play the next week?
As always, this is something that could easily be done to make the game safer for the players, but the NFL as a greedy corporate entity will never do it. As an example, a boxer would never be allowed to fight a week after getting knocked out, and a lot of boxing commissions make it mandatory that, if a fighter is knocked out, they must sit out a number of weeks.
Mandatory mouthpieces – specifically, these
In the past few weeks, I have discovered a new kind of mouthpiece that could make the game much safer. I spoke with a Dr Michael Hutchison, who brought to my attention a mouthguard he had designed that is proven to dramatically lower concussion rates in all ages of players. Please watch the video and check out Dr Hutchison’s website for more information.
No matter what we do, football will always be a dangerous game, but driving a car is dangerous also. The game of football is a great game which teaches a lot of valuable lessons, so of course, I don’t think it should be eliminated. I do think things need to be done to make the game safer, and if you are a fan whining about how soft the NFL has gotten, please remember that the game you watch is not a video game. These players are real people who have real lives, wives and children, and they must be taken care of.