Friday, October 3, 2014

Unsafe at Nearly Any Speed - Why I No Longer Cheer on My Beloved Football Teams

I loved football.

I played football - on offense (wide receiver) and defense (defensive end) and special teams. I enjoyed every minute of playing. I got hurt several times, but I got back up and kept playing; so much was my love of the game.

I coached high school football, for a brief period of time, as an assistant coach under the late John Rauch, after he retired as head coach of the Oakland Raiders and took a high school coaching job to "get out of the house." He was an impressive mentor.

I loved watching college football. My beloved Florida Gators football team drew my attention faithfully nearly every Saturday in the Fall. When I resided in Florida I attended at least one game a year, and sometimes several. For over 30 years I have cheered on my Florida Gators, through good times (of which there have been many) and through not-so-impressive seasons.

I enjoyed pro football, as well, and watched the occassional game. Each year for as long as I can remember I would root for one or more teams in the playoffs, and I enjoyed the spectacle of the Super Bowl.

I also, on occasion, would attend local high school football games, cheering on one team and its players - often children of friends of mine.

But no more. I will neither attend, nor watch, any more football games.

I will not follow the scores, nor the rankings.

I am sad ...

"Why?" - you may ask, would I eschew the sport that I love.

Because I can no longer rationalize that my pleasure, derived from participants in the sport, is worth the costs - the damage which occurs to the brains of the players.

While the research varies, studies show that football players are far, far more likely to develop brain trauma-related illness than non-players. And studies show that the risk to high school students is far greater than that to college athletes.

As the truth about football - and the effect of concussions as well as sub-concussive hits on the minds of players - has become known, I find myself worrying about the players in the trenches, who bash helmet against helmet on nearly every play. The joy of the game is gone.

A week before I wrote this post I was attending a college football game. Fans cheered with every score and big play. The second loudest cheers seemed to be for "big hits" - when a player was blindsided or blacked or tackled with such force that he was left on the ground. A few players in the game were, as a result, very slow to get up. Some only arose with the aid of athletic trainers. As others cheered on the big hits, I found myself extremely uncomfortable - both in viewing the hit, and with regard to the cheering which occurred around me.

But wait, you say. Are not the NFL and NCAA are going to find ways to make the game safer? They have. Helmet technology has improved. More helmets have been designed which score "5" on a scale of 1-5. (Yet, if one were to award helmets a "10" for full protection of the brain, I doubt even these better helmets would score at "2.") Also, rules have been changed to better protect players.

But the undeniable truth is that mass times acceleration equals force. The number of "big hits" may be declining due to rule changes. Helmet technology has improved. Yet, both concussive and  subconcussive hits continue to affect that most soft of organs, the brain.

Football is a sport that is unsafe at nearly any speed.

I remember when Princess Diana was killed, while in the back seat of a Mercedes Limo. While she traveled in a well-built and safe car with all kinds of safety systems (seatbelts and air bags among them), Mercedes opined about the accident something like: "No amount of engineering and safety measures can defeat the laws of physics."

But, you opine - the players know the risks; they choose to play anyway and get paid millions! The reality is that, until recently, many professional players were not aware of the risks. And college players and high school players don't get paid, at all.

So here's a question ... if you are a parent, and permit your child to play football, are you guilty of negligence?

Of course, you might say that football develops character. I concur wholeheartedly. But so do other sports that have none of the long-term, insidious effects of football on so many of its participants.

Other sports also serve to create jobs, and unite communities. If I, and many others, simply shift our support (as fans) to other sport teams, jobs will continue, and communities will remain united.

I simply cannot provide support to a business (and that is what professional football, and much of college football, is today) that does so much harm to so many of its participants. If I were to continue my support, as a fan, I would be guilty of contributing to unnecessary harm imposed on others, for my own self-enjoyment.

I will miss football. I will miss it dearly.

Ron A. Rhoades, JD, CFP(r) is an Assistant Professor of Business at Alfred State College, Alfred, NY. He is also an attorney (Florida), financial planner, and investment adviser. To learn more about Ron, please visit 

UPDATE ... after several days, I've been successful. I don't even know the scores of last weekend - even for my beloved Florida Gators football team. It may take me some time to overcome the feelings of withdrawal, but the cause is a just one.

UPDATE ... Many articles and blog posts are appearing on this subject. Including ... ... which notes a recent study stating: "New helmets are not going to prevent new cases of CTE."

UPDATE ... another academic study 11/24/14: "In the NFL, other professional sports and especially school sports, concern has grown about the long-term neuropsychiatric consequences of repeated mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI) and specifically sports-related concussive and sub-concussive head impacts." Discussed at: "Football players found to have brain damage from mild 'unreported' concussions"

UPDATE ... "researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., say some high school football players in the study exhibited measurable brain changes after a single season of play, even in the absence of concussion."

UPDATE ... another academic study, on the effect of trauma on the brain - how it interferes (over the long term) with the brain's waste removal system, possibly (probably?) leading to the onset of CTE, Alzheimers', etc.

UPDATE ... "[I]t was thought that only concussions could result in any meaningful harm. New studies indicate, however, that “repeated blood-brain barrier disruption(s)” can result in brain damage. Even if football players never suffer a concussion, they’re still at severe risk of permanent brain injury. According to the Sports Concussion Institute, football is the most common sport with concussion risk for males with a 75 percent chance ... The questions remains: Are we willing to accept these risks for a game?"

UPDATE ... "Knock to the Head: A High School Football Player's Story of Traumatic Brain Injury" (Dec. 8, 2014) " The first thing to know about concussions is that they occur far more often than you might think. According to a study conducted by the National Center for Injury Prevention, 47 percent of high school football players are diagnosed with a concussion each season, with 35 percent of those reporting multiple concussions in a single season. But those statistics are just the tip of the iceberg. Saying that the number of concussions that occur each year in high school football can be represented by the number of concussions that were diagnosed by doctors is like saying that the number of Americans that speed in their cars per year can be represented by the number of people who have received speeding tickets. The reality is a lot more drivers are speeding, and a lot more football players are receiving concussions. The American College of Sports Medicine estimates that some 85 percent of concussions go undiagnosed."

UPDATE ... " Half of Americans Don't Want Their Sons Playing Football, Poll Shows" (Dec. 10, 2014)

UPDATE ... Bloomberg, "Even Mike Ditka Thinks Football is Too Dangerous,"

UPDATE ... Boston University Study: Age of first exposure to football and later-life cognitive impairment in former NFL players, "There is an association between participation in tackle football prior to age 12 and greater later-life cognitive impairment measured using objective neuropsychological tests. These findings suggest that incurring repeated head impacts during a critical neurodevelopmental period may increase the risk of later-life cognitive impairment"

UPDATE ... Repeated head blows linked to smaller brain volume, slower processing speeds (boxers, martial arts)

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