We’ve learned over the past few years of the long-term effects that come from repeated blows to the head, most notably from a study by Dr. Ann McKee that found that 110 out of 111 brains of deceased NFL players showed signs of CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE results in memory loss, mood disorders, cognitive decline, and, later in life (though often not much later), dementia.
Although the NFL and youth football organizations alike have made strides in protecting the safety of the players — including changing tackling rules and banning helmets deemed unsafe — it appears that the sport may simply be flawed by nature. Even players who face no concussions or serious brain trauma undergo significant changes in the structure of the brain over a season of high school football, according to a UC Berkeley study. The study found that gray matter and deeper structures inside the brain were changed significantly over the course of the season, even if the players had not received any head injuries that would constitute a concussion. Exposure to head impacts on the developing brain result in significant alterations to its structure, even with new helmets and lessened contact to the head.
We are born with a finite number of neurons. These neurons are fundamental to transmitting proper information between the brain and other nerve cells and muscles. When we lose neurons, they cannot be regenerated as is with other body cells. Our brains — the tools that give us our identities, values, senses of purpose — must be protected cautiously, especially while they develop through our most vulnerable time — childhood. Is there a moral justification for allowing children to play football, with the given risk that their brains can be significantly altered for the rest of their lives without their understanding of the impact that may carry?
It would be immoral to give a child a pack of Newports, since we have been made aware of the immense damage smoking can do to the body. Can we not make the same case for allowing children to play football, knowing the toll just one season of football can do for the developing brain (concussion or no)?
We can look at the dozens of cases of former NFL players whose lives ended early stemming from brain trauma. Mike Webster was a Hall-of-Fame linebacker who lived his short post-career life with dementia, sleeping in train stations and his pickup truck before his death at 50 years of age. Aaron Hernandez was one of the NFL’s most prominent tight ends after being drafted in 2010, only to be charged for murder in 2012. After his suicide in 2017, researchers at Boston University found that he had CTE, which reasonably explained his aggression and irrational personality. 25-year-old Jovan Belcher was confirmed to have CTE following his murder-suicide that involved his 22-year-old girlfriend. There are plenty of other tragic stories that have been told by families of former NFL players involving their declining mental stability, including one from Emily Kelly, wife of former safety Rob Kelly, who chronicled his weight loss, paranoia, and irrational mood swings that followed his short-lived career. In an interview with CPR, Kelly remarked her husband, then just in his late 30s, refusing to leave the house and forgetting to eat. She claims that this is nothing strange for NFL families, either; she mentions the Facebook group of NFL wives who all share similar concerns of their husbands, who deal with mental instability stemming from brain trauma.
If there is any silver lining to the traumatic experiences of former NFL players and their mental health, perhaps it’s that the players were paid to perform. With the sacrifice of the players’ health, they were able to make a sustainable living off of the sport they loved. Students are not receiving any sort of pay to play football; in fact, they (or the parents) are spending to play. The upsides of school football programs — the building of communication skills, physical fitness, the “character-building” — can be learned elsewhere. They do not satisfy on their own the incredibly dangerous risk of receiving irreparable damage to the most vital organ for oneself. It’s time to keep the kids away from football.