Should kids be playing football?

“If 10 percent of mothers come to believe that football is dangerous — to the point of brain damage, effectively — that’s the end of football as we know it,” — pathologist Bennet Omalu.

Mark Fainaru-Wada and his brother, Steve Fainaru, have written a new book called League of Denial, which was also turned into a Frontline documentary on PBS. They take an exhaustive look at how the NFL has dealt with allegations that playing football can lead to brain damage. They interviewed doctors, scientists, former players and their family members — though, not NFL officials, who declined interview requests to them and also to NPR. The authors point to that autopsy of Mike Webster as one of the most significant moments in the history of sports, writes NPR’s David Green.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls in the 1970s, you could argue that no one played a bigger role than Mike Webster. Webster was the Steelers’ center, snapping the ball to the quarterback, then waging war in the trenches, slamming his body and helmet into defensive players to halt their rush.

He was a local hero, which is why the city was stunned when his life fell apart. He lost all his money, and his marriage, and ended up spending nights in the bus terminal in Pittsburgh. Webster died of a heart attack, and on Sept. 28, 2002, came the autopsy.

“His body ends up in the Allegheny County coroner’s office,” ESPN investigative reporter Mark Fainaru-Wada tells NPR’s David Greene. “And there’s a young junior pathologist there named Bennet Omalu. He makes this decision sort of on the spur of the moment to study Mike Webster’s brain.”

Omalu found Webster had a disease that would be called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The disease can cause the behavioral changes that afflicted Webster. He was sure the CTE came from repeated pounding on the football field.

“He thought that well, this is information that the National Football League would probably like to have,” Fainaru says. “He says he thought [the NFL] would give him a big wet kiss and describe him as a hero.”

That’s not what happened. Instead, the NFL formed its own committee to research brain trauma. The league sent its findings to the medical journal Neurosurgery, says Fainaru-Wada. “They publish in that journal repeatedly over the period of several years, papers that really minimize the dangers of concussions. They talk about [how] there doesn’t appear to be any problem with players returning to play. They even go so far as to suggest that professional football players do not suffer from repetitive hits to the head in football games.”

Over the last decade, the NFL has repeatedly avoided tying football to brain damage, even as it has given disability payments to former players with dementia-related conditions.

On the death of safety Dave Duerson in 2011

Fainaru-Wada: Duerson was a long-time safety, a defensive back for the Chicago Bears — and one of the hardest hitters in the game. He had a reputation as just a powerful, powerful hitter. Also, ultimately, after his retirement, a very, very successful businessman. He also was on this committee that was giving out disability payments to players, and became sort of a lightning rod for retired players who believed that Duerson was effectively becoming a shill for the league and the union and trying to keep retired players from getting money. … So, that’s the backdrop in which you see Dave Duerson — until he ends up committing suicide and he leaves a note basically describing why he killed himself and how he realized that he basically was going mad.

Fainaru: One of the more chilling things about this whole thing is that the people who are dying, many of them are dying in very macabre ways. They’re drinking antifreeze or they’re driving their trucks into a tanker truck at 100 miles per hour. Duerson, after spending years denying that this was an issue and warning that the NFL was turning the league into a league of sissies, he then shoots himself in the chest to preserve his brain and then he writes this note:

“My mind slips. Thoughts get crossed. Cannot find my words. Major growth on the back of skull on lower left side. Feel really alone. Thinking of other NFL players with brain injuries. Sometimes, simple spelling becomes a chore, and my eyesite goes blurry … I think something is seriously damaged in my brain, too. I cannot tell you how many times I saw stars in games, but I know there were many times that I would ‘wake up’ well after a game, and we were all at dinner.”

And then on the last page, it’s almost as if he had remembered something that he had forgotten: “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.”

Fainaru-Wade: Indeed, his brain was studied, and it was found to have CTE.

On what’s at stake for the NFL

Fainaru-Wade: This is a $10 billion industry, right? And it’s hard to imagine that the NFL goes away. Clearly they’re making changes to the sport in an effort to make it safer. Whether it can be safer or not is a whole other question. It’s a collision sport whose violence is loved by all of us who love the game. There’s a powerful point in the book where Bennet Omalu — the scientist we described who first sees CTE in a football player — is showing his slides and his findings to a doctor who is connected to the NFL, and the doctor says something like, “If 10 percent of mothers come to believe that football is dangerous — to the point of brain damage, effectively — that’s the end of football as we know it.” I think we are at that point now, not necessarily where it’s the end of football, but where there’s a dialogue beginning about whether you want to let your kids play or not.

Fainaru: I think it’s a very personal decision, and it’s one that I’ve grappled with myself, with my own son. As I said, the issue of prevalence with this disease is not yet established. There are some very, very ominous signs, obviously. But at the same time, we all know that there are lots of things in life that involve risk, and I personally don’t want my son to be making all of his decisions based on fear — particularly for something like football, which I love and which was a really formative experience for me, playing high school football. I think, like a lot of things in parenting, I’ll deal with it when I have to and not until then.

Today’s Question: Should kids be playing football?

  • Gary F

    Didn’t we just have this discussion a few weeks ago?

    • In August we had a question centered around high school injuries. This TQ is pegged to the new documentary and book looking at the NFL.

      • AmyB

        As a culture, it is insane how we promote practices that impair our people. We prioritize short-term entertainment–often involving hurting bodies,while denying the predictable consequences of disability. Football is among the toxic behaviors that should be stopped.

        • Fred Garvin

          Work in general is hurting our bodies. It’s toxic. Let’s stop it.

  • mason

    Yes, I think football at the high school level is still safe. High school players are much smaller, much slower, and hit much softer than players in the NFL.

    The stories of players like Junior Seau are very tragic, but he was playing and taking hits until his late 30s, almost 20 more years than what a someone only play HS football would play.

    • Jim G

      High school ball in some leagues is very competitive and hard hits get you noticed and placed on the first team. The Lake Conference ball in the western metro as well as other big-school programs across the nation are not “much slower.” Less than the NFL? Yes. Less chance for concussions? No.
      Also, it in the practice sessions in which players sustain multiple lower level impacts that are found to be biggest cause for brain injuries.

      • mason

        I think you need to brush up on your physics if you think smaller objects hitting at slower speeds has the same impact as larger objects hitting a higher speeds.

        • Jim G

          I had my first concussion in my 10th grade season. I “awoke” in the middle of the huddle as the quarterback was making the next play-call. After a couple of plays faking my way, I realized that I didn’t know what the calls meant anymore and ran-off the field and told the coach I couldn’t remember the calls. He sent a replacement in for me. Then Coach told me to “Shake it off. You’ll be all right. We’ve all been stung.”

          I never recovered the memory of first half of that game. I sat out on the bench, went home and told my parents that I had been dinged during the game and hadn’t been able to remember the plays. This raised no particular concern on my parents part. So, I took some aspirin for the headache, and went to school the following day. There was no treatment of the concussion.

          I took physics in high school and college. I also remember taking a human physiology course and basic first aid. However, It doesn’t take a physicist or a medical doctor to diagnose concussions if they happen to you.

  • Pearly

    I’ll say it again the NFL is almost over!

  • PaulJ

    If they can make football safe enough, maybe we can get boxing back.

  • Eioljg

    My husband, a physician, wouldn’t let our son play in junior high because of the risk to his growth plates if he got a fracture. Nothing was known about the brain injury evidence back then. But who would give their child a food or medication if there were a high incidence of brain injury? Not many.

    • Fred Garvin

      Correct, but to claim that there’s a “high incidence” of brain injury in FB is simply wrong. Scientifically wrong.

      • Gayle

        Fred – where did you get your “data”?

  • Jim G

    It’s up to the players’ parents, but they will need to be informed by this latest research. Yesterday, I was discussing with a friend her 10 year-old son’s football season. She was thankful that the regular season was ending, but bemoaning the selection of her son to her town’s play-off squad being formed to play other towns’ play-off teams. This selection meant extra practice sessions and family schedules disrupted. She also mentioned that just in the past two weeks a pair of twin boys in this youth program had both suffered concussions. One twin last week and the other one this week. If I were these twin-boys parents, I think I would encourage them to start practicing for the swim team. There are more chances for scholarships and when was the last time a college swimmer drowned?

    I am a former football player who suffered at least two concussions in High School and one in college in the olden days when if you were “stung” by a hard hit, you were urged to shake it off. Little did I know that I was shaking off my possible futures as a research scientist, religious philosopher, violinist, or political leader ( all former talents and interests) for a few extra yards needed for that all-important first down. Now, I’m a former football player instead of a renowned and beloved Renaissance Man I was born to be.

    • Fred Garvin

      Sorry Jim, there are many more deaths and injuries from drownings and swimming accidents than footballs so please choose another activity for your boys that would be safer.
      Oh heck, just lock your boys in the house to be truly safe.

    • Ralfy

      Jim – I agree and empathize with you completely. I too played football into college. I was what the coaches called a “big hitter” and was frequently rewarded by them and my mates. 8, 10, 12 concussions later (not all from football, but most), I have chronic headaches and a sketchy day to day memory, as well as larger gaps in my past. I don’t look forward to what my prognosis is. I work hard, I’m successful in my career, but I have under achieved compared to my one-time potential.

      • Jim G

        Ralfy- I played above my height and weight and tried to hit hard in order to impress the coaches. However, I found out there’s always someone on the opposing team, at least one guy, that hit as as hard as I did. In college, I remember a lumber jack from the upper-peninsula of Michigan who hit me like a tree. I stopped right now. Sudden deceleration, is not good for the brain. I always took pride in those hard hits, not really understanding what I was inflicting on others and myself. I’m going to take something for my neck now. Have a good evening.

        • Ralfy

          Jim – I don’t remember my last play or my last game, against NDSU. I’m told I took on a pulling guard and was knocked out cold. I also got a compression injury to my neck. This was 35 + years ago. I “sleep” with a collar and do PT every day, for the neck, back, knees, hip and shoulder. What is sick is despite it all, I have very fond feelings of my playing days. I do miss the game. But I don’t enjoy football now. It is so over the top, and I find that most of the fan base is into the game to party, bet $, and ego gratification. Most of them couldn’t tell an H-back from a Strong safety.
          Have a good night. I’ll be reading your posts with interest.

      • mason

        You are comparing semi-pro sports with amateur high school sports.

  • Joe Musich

    Never did and I am pleased with my decision to never allow my children to play footbal. I would like to think the sport would also be banned before public money is spent to further it’s brutality. But I guess it’s all your perspective. It’s what you believe about human nature or human proclivity. Are we brutaly competitive or cooperative sharing beings ? I have made my choice.

  • Valerie Arganbright
  • Fred Garvin

    ““If 10 percent of mothers come to believe that football is dangerous…”
    That might be the core of the problem.
    We need FATHERS raising kids ,especially boys.
    Otherwise they’ll turn out to be namby-pamby momma’s boys like Barry Obama, who spend much of their time hanging out with guys trying to do guy things to prove their undeveloped masculinity. Why else are there so few females in his cabinent and staff?
    We need to raise boys to be men, not women with facial hair.

    • Ross

      It has nothing to do with namby-pamby. It has everything to do with protecting your brain health. If keeping your brain healthy so that you don’t lose your mind after your football career, I’ll take namby-pamby every time.

      • Fred Garvin

        You’ve lost all sense of perspective.
        FB isn’t the problem.
        Soccer, swimming, bicycling–all have more injuries and deaths than FB. And nothing is more brain unhealthy than death.
        This isn’t about brain health–it’s about namby pamby bandwagonism.

  • Vickie Cyr

    No kids should NOT being playing football, nor hockey for that matter!

  • Elijah the Tishbite

    No! Footbaal demands human sacrifice in the form of young men who must destroy their bodies in its rituals, and we should have nothing to do with such idolatry!

  • kevins

    I don’t think participation in football is a bad thing as long as parents and coaches also emphasize safety issues and sportsmanship. Both of the latter can also be taught in non-athletic activities and may contribute to the general well being of our society, if taken to heart. All participants need to be educated about and appreciative of the implications of head injuries, regardless of the sport or activity.

  • Sue de Nim

    Even without the injuries to brains and joints, it says something about us that our most popular spectator sport is essentially ritualized combat.

  • Gayle

    From the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research (catastrophic being defined as death, paralyzing or season ending injury), in order of most dangerous:
    All had a ratio of 1.75 to 2.15 / 100,000 participants.
    Girls – Cheerleading and Gymnastics
    Boys – Gymnastics, Hockey and Football

    From research done by the U.S. Consumer Safety Commission, data on injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms last year. Note, these are totals for all ages, not just youth sports and not ratios.
    1. Basketball (512,213)
    2. Bicycling (485,669)
    3. Football (418,260)
    4. Soccer (174,686)
    5. Baseball (155,898)
    6. Skateboards (112,544)
    7. Trampolines (108,029)
    8. Softball (106,884)

    • Pearly

      Can not ban basketball. No way no how.

  • Fred Garvin

    Is there any kind of agreement or memorandum or understanding, oral or otherwise, that MPR cross-promotes PBS programs?
    Do these two authors kickback any money or consideration for the promotion of their book via MPR, PBS, or Frontline?
    That reminds of the inteview on NPR’s Weekend Edition a few years back, where the host and the regular childrens book reviewer (Daniel Pinkwater) used airtime to review Daniel Pinkwater’s book! Did ANYONE at NPR consider the unethical decision to permit an NPR employee to use NPR to review his own book for which the NPR employee would benefit financially?
    As we saw with Pro Publica’s incestuous relationship with the IRS , I really don’t think that Frontline should be “teaming up” with “investigators/authors” whose main agenda is to peddle their books.
    Consequently, MPR shouldn’t be engaging in such promotions either.
    Come on! The title–“League of Denial”– tells you all you need to know about the OBVIOUS slant of the hit piece.

  • Gayle

    From the CDC, over a ten year study period ending 2009:
    * 460,000 to 1,102,000 concussions related to HS sports occur each year
    * 5-10% of athletes will experience a concussion in a sport season
    * Fewer than 10% of sport related concussions involve a Loss of Consciousness (e.g., blacking out, seeing stars, etc.)
    * Football is the most common sport with concussion risk for HS males (75% chance for concussion during career, 20% chance in any given season)
    * Soccer is the most common sport with concussion risk for HS females (50% chance for concussion during career)
    * 78% of concussions occur during games (as opposed to practices)
    * 15% of all sports related injuries are concussions
    * Headache (85%) and Dizziness (70-80%) are most commonly reported symptoms immediately following concussions for injured athletes
    * Estimated 47% of athletes do not report feeling any symptoms after a concussive blow
    * A football player will receive an estimated 500 to 1500 blows to the head during a season
    * Impact speed of a football player tackling a stationary player: 20mph
    * Impact speed of a soccer ball being headed by a player: 70mph

    From the American Journal of Sports Medicine:
    Concussions per 100,000 participants in HS sports:
    Football: 64 -76.8
    Boys’ ice hockey: 54
    Boys’ lacrosse: 40 – 46.6
    Girls’ soccer: 33
    Girls’ lacrosse: 31 – 35
    Girls’ field hockey: 22 – 24.9
    Boys’ wrestling: 22 – 23.9
    Boys’ soccer: 19 – 19.2
    Girls’ basketball: 18.6 – 21
    Boys’ Basketball: 16 – 21.2
    Girls’ softball: 16 – 16.3
    Cheerleading: 11.5 to 14

    Girls’ volleyball: 6 – 8.6

    Boys’ baseball: 4.6 – 5

    Girls’ gymnastics: 7

    Girls’ swim/dive: 2

    Girls’ track/field: 2

    Boys’ track/field: 2

    Boys’ swim/dive: 1

  • Gordon

    I would personally outlaw football for anyone under 18. We protect youth from drinking, smoking and other activities that could be injurious to their health. I’d add football to that list. Yes, there is always a risk with any activity, but the risk with football crosses a threshold where it need to be categorized as activity that need to be controlled. The brain injury issue grabs all the headlines and is the most shocking, But there are also countless former football players with lifelong limps due to twisted knees and other dislodged joints during their playing days. Yes, outlaw football for youth.

  • Ralfy

    Besides the head injuries that have everyone’s attention, readers should also be aware of the cumulative damage via the body blows in a football game. Every snap results in the virtual equivalent car crash at 20 to 30 mph, sometimes faster. Blindside hits you never saw coming, weren’t ready for. Fullspeed collisions, two or more players, 225 to 300 pounds, running full speed into each other, with the intent of mayhem. 50 or more times per game. Times How many years? Plus all the practices and scrimmages, which can be even more violent than the games. Organs are bruised, cartilage torn or crushed, bones broken. There is a reason the NFL pension kicks in at age 55. The average age of death for a qualified NFL player is age 52.

    • Sue de Nim

      I couldn’t begin to count how many middle-aged men I know who are obese in part due to their old football injuries that prevent them from doing much aerobic exercise.

      • Fred Garvin

        I cannot count how many middle aged men are obese BECAUSE they didn’t play football.

      • Jim G

        I can’t run well anymore because of football injured knees and feet. (Yes, we used real cleats in the olden days, and they’re especially efficient toe breakers.) However, I do my aerobic workouts on my bicycle.

      • mason

        Yeah, that’s why the’re fat….

        • Ralfy

          Arthritis in my neck (compressed vertibra injured in a game), arthritis in my back, hip and knee, all from football related damage. Can’t go down the stairs in the morning until my joints lube up. Chronic headaches. Can’t sleep for more than a few hours. Two toes that were crushed make it hard to walk. I hope the damage done was worth the fantasy fun you got from watching the game.

          • mason

            You said elsewhere that got those injuries from playing in college, which isn’t high school.

            As I said elsewhere, this about the risk of play HS football, not playing professional football until you are in your late 30s.

            People also posted elsewhere that bicycling causes more concussions than football.

            Let’s stop with the anecdotes and fearmongering.

    • mason

      How many HS football player are 300lbs?

      Enough with this crap of comparing HS football to the NFL. It’s blatant lying.

      • Jim G

        Mason, I played against a whole line averaging 300 lb. forty years ago.That team, Hopkins, was in the Lake Conference, and like I said before… the Lake Conference is and was very competitive. Come to any of this conferences’ games and stand along the sidelines. The pain and brain injuries start early in the Land o’ Lakes. One of the mainstays of that line became a professional wrestler. Unfortunately, he died in his 40’s.

        • Ralfy

          I played against that Hopkins team in ’69. Separated my shoulder and cracked the ball on the top of my arm – which wasn’t diagnosed for several weeks when the season ended. Never missed a game. They popped my shoulder back and asked if I could play. Of course I said yes.

          • Jim G

            I remember those guys shrugging off our normal sized offensive linemen and my job, as one of those puny 150 lbs. running backs, was to pass block. I hit the big guy once… and bounced off, got up and hit him again…and bounced off again, finally our QB got rid of the ball. If I would have been watching this little tableau from the sidelines it must have looked like an outtake from “Jack and the Bean Stalk” with Jack trying to hobble the Giant…. hilarious to the observer, but not for me.

          • Ralfy

            You were a bug on the windshield. Gotta admire the scrappy factor! Thanks for sharing your thoughtful posts.

          • Jim G

            Hey, I bulked up… a little. This was before Human Growth Hormone and steroids, so most of the weight gain came through free weight training. When our starting fullback on my college team had his kidneys bruised during the 1st quarter of our third game (His football career ended that game.), Coach looked around and asked, “Who knows the fullback position?” I raised my hand, caught a couple of passes that game, and didn’t drop the ball. I played my way onto the first team. I became the smallest fullback in the league and was known for hitting holes before they closed. The linebackers and I got to know each other pretty well before the end of each game. I actually could catch passes over the middle. It was one of my favorite plays, though I remember it was usually four yards and clod of grass in the face-mask. I do remember looking up once in a great while to see nothing but open space and green grass between me and the goal line. I played at 165 lbs.,however my weight was listed at 180 in the programs. Go figure. The season for me ended on during our last game with a draw play. My left knee’s ACL was torn when hit by ….a linebacker.

          • Ralfy

            Thanks for the story. There are few things in sport as fun as catching a pass in a crowd. I can tell that you were one of those guys your mates loved to have in the lineup. And one of those guys that earned the respect of every linebacker in the league.

          • Jim G

            Yes, I have mixed feelings about football.
            Loved playing the game and hate the damage it does to we humans who play it. Nice “meeting” you, Ralfy.
            May the ball bounce your way.

      • Ralfy

        Mason – a hit is a hit. There were 3 players on my team over 300 pounds on my HS team. The average size lineman playing for a big time HS program like EP or Cretin is larger than the average sized lineman in the NFL in the 70’s or earlier. At the HS level, there is often a size disparity of 25% or more. I played around 225 in the early 70’s. There were running backs under 150 that I know are still hurting from some of the hits I put on them. At 225 I was too small for D1 in ’72. It’s not just the big hits – the cumulative damage done by all the hits are equally dangerous. Between games and practices, I easilly delivered and took 1,000 hits, big and small, every year I played (8 years) with a helmet and pads.

        • Ralfy

          PS There were 4 players on my HS team that went on to play D1. One was a Sr when I was a Jr. We knocked heads everyday in practice. He weighed about 275 and went on to Michigan (All Big Ten) and the NFL (4 years with the Oilers, 2 with the Chiefs). I also played against 2 others my Sr year that had short careers in the NFL. They too each had 50 pounds or better on me. They beat the h#££ out of me. One knocked me cold. After sitting out for the rest of the half, I played the entire second half. Any memories I have of that night are from what I was told. Any of you who dispute the data and the anecdotal evidence offered are either living in denial about the violence of football and the damage it does, or are completely clueless and have never played at that level.

  • Scott44

    You know, I think everybody should be wrapped up in a dozen layers of bubble wrap. I played football as a little kid right through high school. The injuries I have that affect me are from normal life not sports.

  • Fred Garvin

    I see others at MPR have jumped on the bandwagon:

    “Dishonest reporting? Hardly. It’s a conversation starter worthy of wanting and seeking more information. Exactly what good journalism should do even if it upsets us in the process.”
    -Bob Collins
    Look, these authors are trying to sell books–and being sensational in order to do so. Tears, tragedies–those stories sell books. TENS OF MILLIONS of normal, functioning kids & adults don’t make good TV and don’t make a good story to market into a book. Ever since Woodward & Bernstein turned journalism into personal fame & riches, “journalism” has slid into the sewer–“League of Denial” is NOT a fair treatment of the subject, and thus, cannot be “good journalism’.
    I understand why the authors are doing what they do. What I cannot understand is why PBS and MPR give them a platform to promote & peddle their wares.

    • Ralfy

      Tens of millions … Doesn’t change the fact that over the same time frame 100’s of thousands have life changing damage. The NFL recently settled for over $750,000,000 with ex-players. Not out of the goodness of their heart. But to keep the issue under their control. I respect your emotional attachment to the game, but not your “knowledge” of what is going on inside a helmet.

  • Fred Garvin

    Really, ANYONE paying attention has been aware of concussions in sports for DECADES, not just football.
    Of course, since the story involved football ( a “sport”), it is hardly surprising that those at PBS and MPR are surprised by this story, calling it a “conversation starter.”

    Obviously, when one spends the day surrounded by classical music, Downton Abby, and a echo-chamber of a fear of guns, it’s no wonder that it surprises “public media” types that sports can be dangerous. What is foreign is always a surprise.

  • gb

    After playing 4 years as an inside linebacker and running back in high school I’m glad I messed up my knee so I didn’t play collage ball. I hate to think how bad my memory would be after another 4 years as it is my short term memory is very bad I had so many hits that I saw stars and went black for a couple I cant even count. The sad thing is I didn’t even no that was really bad I always lead with my head when I tackled someone.