Earlier this month, BU Today published an article titled “Aaron Hernandez’s CTE Worst Seen by BU Experts in a Young Person” where experts at Boston University’s CTE Center said individuals with similar damage were at least 46 years old. Hernandez was just 27 years old, and while many factors could increase the rapid degeneration of his brain, it is undoubtedly that repeated head trauma over the years of his football career contributed heavily.
BU also published a study in July that found CTE in 99 percent of brains that it received from NFL players, as well as 91 percent of college football players and 21 percent of high school football players. While this study has come under some scrutiny because of its lack of control group and selection bias of the brains the CTE Center collects, the numbers are still glaring.
We have been saying that the NFL has a concussion problem for years which this is a good thing because we are finally able to acknowledge this as an issue instead of just brushing off big hits to the head as “getting your bell rung.” And while some of this old-school, tough guy culture still runs throughout the sport, it seems that most are coming to their senses in regards to the importance of CTE and concussions.
While it is easy to criticize the NFL over the plethora of the issues that they encounter, I find myself struggling to figure out what they can do regarding concussions to help their players. They are penalizing and fining players for hits to the helmet of other players, but with the speed of the game, sometimes these things are unintentional. Some players offensive players have even come out recently telling defenders to hit them up higher and not in their legs to save them from injuring a knee or ankle.
Now to some, this may sound crazy, but not to the players themselves. First, the players who are currently in the NFL have been playing football the same way for their entire lives. They have established how they play the game for around 20 years of their life, so the way they play the game can’t change overnight.
The change has to start at the beginning of these careers. Second, they love this game, and it is their job, and want to keep playing it as long as they can and in a league with no guaranteed contracts or job security, the best way to stay employed is to stay on the field. To some players, they think they can shake off a big hit and bounce back for the next play, but if they tear an ACL, their season is over.
This is why the NFL needs to start to combat the concussion and CTE problem by guaranteeing players contracts and lifetime health insurance for their players. This ensures that the league is not just trying to run their players into the ground and actually stands by their word to take care of them both monetarily and in regards to their health. If the NFL did this, players would be able to be more cautious on the field and also get the care they need off of it. This would be the excellent gesture to help fix some of the issues and show the league cares about its current players, but there is a bigger picture action the NFL should consider.
The NFL needs to help shut down youth tackle football in the United States. Research has shown that playing tackle football before the age of 12 leads to more cognitive and behavioral problems than those who start later in life. This should not be surprising.
Seven-year-olds in full pads and helmet hitting each other to some could be cute, or fun to watch clips of on YouTube, but these are children who in the most developmental time in their lives are repeatedly knocking their undersized, underdeveloped heads together in heavy helmets.
Thankfully some people are realizing the bad effects youth tackle football can as participation in tackle football by boys ages 6 to 12 has fallen by nearly 20 percent since 2009 but it is still a problem that can be solved.
The league should go all in promoting flag football as the future in developing the next generation of football players. Flag football allows kids to learn the fundamentals of the game and develop the skill set to play the game without having to hit. They could even encourage kids to play other sports to develop other athletic skills that would translate to the football field in high school or college if they chose to play then.
If the NFL wanted to make a statement and show that they care not only about the future of the sport but the young people who will continue to fill the NFL in the future, they need to begin the process of making these changes that will change the world of football for the better.