Let’s get one thing straight: I love football. I’m a huge fan, and before I left for college one of my favorite things to do was plant myself in front of the TV all Sunday long and watch football with my dad. Football is the most popular sport in America, for it is endlessly exciting and fun to watch. With the Super Bowl tonight, fans across America (including me) are gearing up for the season’s biggest and most important game, and it’s safe to say that we go a little crazy for it. In fact, last year’s game drew well over 100 million viewers! Football is an incredible sport, and this year’s Super Bowl will undoubtedly be as thrilling and entertaining as those in years past. Though I am as passionate about football as the next fan, and can’t wait for tonight, as a society we need to re-evaluate this game we love so much.
I don’t think it’s any secret that football is a dangerous sport. There are massive hits and huge collisions on every play. For the most part, people have just accepted that football is violent and that’s the way it is. However, there is a significant amount of research emerging that football has devastating and potentially lethal effects on players’ brains. Concussions, which have long been known to be damaging to football players, are now being accompanied by a relatively new and alarming disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Both of these, particularly CTE, are huge points of concern.
Since most people have no idea what CTE is, here’s a quick backstory:
CTE is a progressive degenerative neurological disorder. This disorder occurs from injury, specifically repetitive hits to the head. Such blows to the brain causes its tissue to degenerate, triggering the build-up of abnormal proteins. CTE’s symptoms include dementia, aggression, impulse control issues, and confusion, to name a few. CTE can currently only be definitively diagnosed post-mortem and it has been found in well over 100 football players.
CTE is a disorder that is currently in its infancy, and there is so much more for us to learn and understand about it. Though the relationship between CTE and concussions is still poorly understood, scientists are beginning to make progress. What we now know is that the biggest danger to players is not the number of concussions they have sustained, but rather all of the little hits that do not result in concussions. Essentially, it is the cumulative exposure that is so detrimental: getting hit in the head play after play after play. Our brains are not designed to absorb this kind of force, and that’s where CTE comes in. CTE is believed to be caused by these repeated blows to the head, and this being the case, there is absolutely nothing the NFL can do about it. That is why CTE is so alarming. In the game of football, hitting is fundamental and heads are used extraordinarly frequently. This is so difficult to combat, since football is such a reactionary game, and there is no time to script players’ moves. More and more cases of CTE are being discovered as time goes on, and it’s heartbreaking to hear about these former football players whose minds and lives have fallen apart because of this awful disorder.
I’ll say it again: I love football. But the research on CTE is evolving, and as it does, the evidence of just how dangerous football is grows stronger and stronger. It is critical that Americans take a moment to reflect on our beloved sport, and recognize that we are placing a higher value on the social excitement we get than on the health of players. Additionally, we need to question the morality of football. We must assess whether young players, who typically begin partaking in the sport around age 12 or earlier, really know what they’re signing up for when they start playing. It is easy to say that professional football players know the risks of the game; however, it’s kids that eventually turn into college and professional players, and they may not understand the long-term risks involved with playing football. Perhaps the first necessary step to challenging football is increasing people’s awareness about CTE, which hopefully can force us to stop placing football on this pedestal and see it for what it is: an extraordinarily violent game that is jeopardizing the health of those who play it. It will be extremely interesting to watch as the knowledge about CTE increases in the impending years. In the meantime, I’ll keep watching football, though I can’t help but cringe at the sound of helmet-to-helmet contact on almost every single play.
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