When I was growing up, baseball was America’s favorite sport, but over the last several decades, it has become eclipsed by American football. This is not only at the professional level, but also in college, high school, and in numerous “Pee Wee” leagues for children. In some parts of the country, football has been elevated to something akin to a religion, as exemplified by the former TV hit, “Friday Night Lights.”
But football has a serious problem. And we are just beginning to come to terms with it. Consider the following:
- Last fall, the NFL (who has no reason to overestimate the risks) announced via the Associated Press that as many as 1 in 3 players could expect to develop Alzheimer’s or some other form of cognitive illness, and that the rates of illness would be “materially higher than those expected in the general population” and would come at “notably younger ages.”
- A Boston University study of former professional players reported last month that those who had started playing tackle football before the age of 12 had significantly greater cognitive deficits than those who did not. They warned that even one season of tackle football in pre-teen years could have significant long-term effects on a person’s brain structure and function.
- On Tuesday, promising rookie linebacker Chris Borland shocked San Francisco fans by announcing his retirement after one year. He had done extensive research on the dangers of the sport and decided his brain was too important to risk in this career.
While all concussions and brain injuries raise the risk of long-term cognitive effects, few sports produce the recurrent shocks to the brain that football does. It is becoming clearer and clearer that America’s favorite form of entertainment is sacrificing young men (and children) for our viewing pleasure, much like the gladiators of ancient Rome.
Worse yet, there is little evidence that advances in protective padding have changed the course. You see, it’s not so much the direct impact as the “sloshing” of the brain back and forth in the skull that does the damage. Adding padding doesn’t help that.
One can imagine a variety of potential complications arising from this. Will a new flood of liability suits clog the courts? Will a person’s football history become a “pre-existing condition” that will affect insurance rates and determinations? Will our efforts to reduce the risk of dementia be thwarted and even reversed by our own lifestyle choices?
Of course, there will always be those who argue that this is a free country, and each person has the right to engage in any legal activity, regardless of its risk. But this will translate to more health care dollars, more disability, and more insurance costs for all of us as we bear the burden of its effects over the next several decades.
America has a looming public health crisis. And it also happens to be America’s favorite pastime. What do you think we should do?