Addressing Head Injuries in Football Is No Easy Feat


We don’t know the circumstances that fueled Junior Seau’s choice to end his life on Wednesday, to reiterate what I wrote then. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples wrote the same in his piece, though he did address the elephant in the room: football’s safety.

There is an unsettling amount of suicide deaths among athletes of high impact sports in recent years: Seau and Dave Duerson in football; a “rash” of hockey enforcers; and while it’s not sport in the traditional sense, Mike “Awesome” Alfonso and Chris Benoit from the world of professional wrestling. Brain trauma sustained in their respective fields is a unifying circumstance of these deaths. Seemingly, there have been enough of these instances that the sports observing population could discuss the connection between them and sports-related head injuries frankly and maturely.

Alas, that would be giving some of that populace too much credit. Even posing the question raises the cackles of some. Wrote Staples:

"Did football cause all of that? We don’t know. Maybe it’s a convenient excuse. Or maybe almost 30 years (including high school, college and pro football) of repeated shots to the head did permanent damage. As a linebacker, he collided with a blocker or a ballcarrier on every down."

That was enough to send at least one national radio host into a Twitter tizzy. The always even-tempered Dino Costa weighs in:

I don’t always agree with Staples — USC preseason No. 2?! C’mon now — but I certainly have no inclination to disagree with vulgarities. Then again, I’m not a talk show host. Radio is a medium on which purposefully inflammatory commentary is the norm, and Costa’s attacks on Staples misrepresent Staples’ entire discussion. But get past the attacks and attempted goal post moving, and you’ll find an underlying deterrent that keeps sports safety from being discussed more constructively. Indeed, the juxtaposition of Staples’ thoughtfulness and Costa’s pro wrestling-like bluster typifies the divided debate of player safety.

There’s no doubt more could be done for player safety in football. When it comes to college football in particular, the lack of progress on concussion prevention and education is astounding. I spoke with Chris Nowinski in the fall of 2010 about football head injuries. Nowinski is a former Harvard player, and now leads the Sports Legacy Institute. He said categorized the NCAA as virtually non-responsive to the epidemic of football head trauma, particularly in comparison to the NFL and junior levels. Something needs changing, but the question is what.

Football’s reached unparalleled heights of popularity in the last decade. Contributing to its success is the same mindset that will make The Avengers a box office winner. A part of our psyche is wired to react to explosions, epic fight scenes, the grandious. In football, that mindset’s revealed whenever we cheer a bone-jarring tackle. Just a few years ago, ESPN filled airtime during the half of Monday Night Football with those cringeworthy “Jacked Up” segments.

Realistically though, it’s not the highlight reel hits that result in longterm damage. Former North Carolina Tar Heel turned outstanding football blogger Michael Felder expressed this to me at the same time I was working on my Nowinski article, October 2010. Low impact blows sustained day after day are most detrimental, a point that if it was made more commonly known, would allow for more constructive debate.

Truth is, for some devastating the reason they enjoy football. Any threat to that, no matter how minor, is a threat to something they hold near and dear. Hence, publicizing the damage of the day-to-day contact is key.

That’s not necessarily the only key, though. There was no shortage of consternation when the NCAA approved a closer kickoff this past winter, despite statistics suggesting it will result in little impact on gameplay.

Further, there exist those who dismiss all chatter of athlete safety with a wave of the hand and reap-what-they-sow attitude. They chose this business. They get paid millions or are given scholarships. The question then becomes is our own entertainment more important than another person’s life? How much further evolved are we then ancestors who cheered the gladiators?

I love football. Love it, as I’m sure each and every reader of this column loves it. And because we love it is why it’s so important to address these questions.