One of the great shocks of my life occurred a few years ago when a buddy, an ex-Super-Bowl quarterback, revealed that he had been diagnosed with “early-onset dementia.” What could I say?
Then the most devastating tackler on my own college team, famous for his head-first style, who had gone on to a sterling medical career, informed me that he, too, was suffering from early onset dementia.
I come from a football family. My grandfather played in the helmetless early 1900s. Late in life he was lost in dementia. My dad played for UCLA in the helmet-optional early 1930s; he, too, later fell into dementia.
I played at Sac State in the 1950s, but I was mostly a bench warmer. I still had my “bell rung” a few times during those years of better helmets and increasing “spearing.”
As time passed, bigger, faster players began using even more improved helmets as weapons, so I urged my own children away from football. A few old teammates told me how disappointed they were to learn that.
Now as my grandchildren are entering adolescence, I’ve been asked by their parents about the sport. I tell them about my friends suffering from early-onset dementia – perhaps from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – and that the rewards hardly seem worth that outcome, anymore.
I also mention the increasingly troubling association of football with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s disease. A 2012 study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety concluded, after examining 3,439 death certificates, that ex-professional football players were four times as likely to suffer from ALS or from Alzheimer’s as non-players.
How to change that?
To start, spearing and other intentional head blows should immediately become ejection penalties, and cost the offenders suspensions. Shoulder-tackling and blocking can again be emphasized, and mentors can cease urging youth-league players to “Hurt somebody! Man up!” as I once heard a local pee-wee league coach urge 12-year-olds.
USA Football’s “Heads Up” program, or “rugby-style” tackling can be emphasized. Team doctors or certified athletic trainers should be present for all contests. Only they should decide if a player is fit to be on the field.
Football isn’t the only game with problems, but it’s the one we Americans love most. As a collision sport, football is inherently more dangerous than most, but any contact sport may result in brain traumas.
Those injuries in youth sports especially are dangerous. We should take a close look especially at them. The rules for all sports – football, soccer, hockey, etc. – are arbitrary. We can change them to protect players, and we should.
Gerald Haslam played high school, college and service football. He is the author of 21 books and the editor of seven others, including “The Great Central Valley: California’s Heartland” (University of California Press, 1993). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.