Safety in American Football

Illustration by Nancy Yang

Illustration by Nancy Yang

Last month, the National Football League played its 51st Super Bowl, crowning the New England Patriots as victors. As a Patriots fan, I was beyond thrilled; this win meant their fifth Super Bowl ring. However, as someone interested in the fields of health and medicine, I was forced to also contend with some of the other realities associated with the sport.

It is certainly no secret that the brains of football players undergo some rather rough treatment, ranging from concussions in the minor leagues to the gruesome injury sustained in the 1985 match between the Washington Redskins and New York Giants in which quarterback Joe Theisman’s leg snapped in two following a tackle. Douglas Groothius argues that football, in its essence, is “all about taking down opponents, which demands collisions, concussions, contusions, and more.” The average career in the NFL is around six years, largely due to career-ending injuries. Moreover, players are more likely than the average person to eventually die from diseases that result from damaged brain cells, including Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Alzheimer’s disease. Repeated head trauma can also lead to lasting psychological effects such as mental illness and suicide. Dave Duerson, a former Chicago Bears player who committed suicide in 2011, sent a text message to his family shortly before his suicide requesting that his brain be donated to a facility researching football-related injuries.

Who is responsible for the risks of football? Players themselves make the choice to participate in the sport. However, these players would not be in the game if they did not have an audience of millions and millions that actively supported and encouraged the industry: us. Coaches, and sometimes parents, also advocate for children to play the sport from a young age, and insist they dedicate hours upon hours to success, ultimately making their way to the NFL. These coaches in particular are compensated based on the successes of their teams and may care little for the health of individual players. The American love for the sport has even been compared to some sort of masochistic desire being fulfilled in that our violent desires that cannot be manifested on a regular basis are instead taken out by watching players tackle other players to the ground. In addition, players are not making informed choices about risk when there are ridiculous amounts of money at stake. Though many professions involve risk, football players are essentially putting their well-being on the line for our own entertainment.

With all this said, while football does continue to be played, how can we make sure that players remain as safe as possible?

Dr. Matthew Matava, professor of orthopaedic surgery and physical therapy as well as chief of sports medicine, spoke a bit on the measures that are in place here at WUSTL to ensure the safety of our football players. He explained, “In the pre-season, players train all year long in order to establish a general level of fitness, and fitness throughout the year is maintained by the strength and conditioning coaches. Staff are available at every practice and every game to perform X-rays, surgeries, or MRIs, and training staff are also well-equipped to deal with head and neck injury.” While such measures can ensure that football remains as safe as it can be for players who will continue the sport for the next few decades, more long-term safety measures should be put into place in order to preserve player safety, particularly in professional leagues. Without such measures, it can even be argued that the sport as a whole should cease to exist

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