By Ken Reed
I’m no football hater. I truly enjoy watching the game. However, I am deeply concerned about the undeniable dangers of the game — especially for our children who are playing before their brains are fully developed.
The disturbing scene that played out when Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest after making a tackle in the Buffalo Bills vs. Cincinnati Bengals game has served to bring the nation’s attention to the health dangers of playing this violent sport.
While doctors have yet to determine what caused Hamlin’s heart to stop, his injury, in and of itself, is not, in my opinion, reason enough to make significant changes to how we play football.
However, when the health dangers of football are looked at as a whole, it becomes clear that changes are needed. There are numerous possibilities, but let’s start with these four:
Guaranteed contracts for NFL Players. Unlike the NBA and MLB, most NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed. Despite playing by far the most dangerous professional sport, NFL players, like Hamlin, don’t have the economic protection, in case of injury, that athletes in other pro sports have.
NFL players have a life expectancy of only 59.6 years, according to a 2019 study. Moreover, consider that the number of former NFL players between the ages 30 and 49 who have received diagnoses of dementia, Alzheimer’s or other memory-related diseases is 19 times the national average for that age group. Also, one study revealed that 99% of the donated brains of former NFL players have the progressive degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
NFL owners, whose franchise values and profits have skyrocketed in recent years, need to step up and provide players guaranteed contracts and a better pension and post-retirement healthcare plan.
Eliminate live tackling at college and high school practices. Every college and high school football program should adopt the Dartmouth policy of eliminating tackling from all practices. Injuries, including concussions, have dropped significantly for Dartmouth since this policy was implemented.
Instead of tackling teammates, Dartmouth players tackle inanimate objects, not people. They use various dummies, including a robotic moving dummy called the “mobile virtual player” in practice.
Dartmouth has been very competitive on the field since the change. They’ve won three Ivy League championships and have been ranked nationally, offensively and defensively, during several seasons since head coach Buddy Teevens made the switch to a no-contact policy 12 years ago.
Require high schools that sponsor football to have certified athletic trainers. Only 37% of U.S. high schools currently employ a full-time athletic trainer. That’s important because schools with full-time trainers do a better job of identifying concussed athletes than schools without full-time trainers. Also, athletes at schools without full-time trainers dangerously return to play sooner than athletes with full-time trainers.
If schools are going to spend money to fund football and other contact sports, they also need to find the money to fund a full-time athletic trainer who is nearby for practices and games and, ideally, a doctor who’s on the sideline for games.
Ban Tackle Football for Kids 12 and Under. The developing brains of pre-teens are more vulnerable than those of adults. As a society, we historically don’t allow kids to partake in dangerous activities like smoking. The same should hold true for playing a dangerous sport like tackle football.
According to the CDC, youth tackle football players experience a median of 378 head impacts per season compared to eight for flag football players. The more than 2.8 million children ages 6 to 14 playing tackle football are 15 times more likely to sustain blows to the head than flag football players.
Football isn’t going away any time soon. In many ways, it remains our national religion. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seriously consider changes that can improve the health and general well-being of the game’s participants.
Avoidance behavior simply can’t be an option.
Ken Reed is the sports policy director for League of Fans (LeagueofFans.org), a sports reform project. Reed lives in Littleton.
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families. Linda writes extensively about how youth sports can hijack families, and family outings, non-sports activities and bonding time are lost in the pursuit of the next club team game or travel tournament.
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Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Episode #25 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Physical Education Should Be a Critical Component of K-12 School Design – Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
Episode #24 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Mental Health and Athletes: Ending the Stigma – Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci are the founders of Dam Worth It, a non-profit created to end the stigma around mental health at colleges and universities through sport, storytelling, and community creation.
Episode #23 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Olympian Benita Fitzgerald Mosley Talks Title IX, Youth Sports and the Olympics.
Episode #22 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Rethinking Sports Fandom with Author Craig Calcaterra – We discuss Calcaterra’s new book “Rethinking Fandom: How to Beat the Sports-Industrial Complex at Its Own Game” and explore new ways to be a fan.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- League of Fans Sports Policy Director Ken Reed quoted in Washington Post column titled "What happened to P.E.? It’s losing ground in our push for academic improvement," by Jay Mathews
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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