There is no question that American football is a brutal sport. In fact, this is a large part of the game’s appeal. Every autumn fans line stadium seats, sports bar stools and their own living room couches to watch the spectacle of massive men pummeling one another with crushing blows. There is also no question that the fierce nature of a full contact sport like football takes a severe toll on the players who suffer all manner of physical injuries over the course of their careers. But recently more attention is being focused on the neurological price that players pay in their quest for gridiron glory.
This spike in concern over football-inflicted brain damage is due in large part to a recent PBS Frontline exposé entitled “League of Denial.” In this documentary, numerous retired players have accused the NFL of covering-up the severity and wide-spread nature of such injuries. According to many of these players, the NFL has understood the gravity of the problem for a long time. However, it is only relatively recently that this problem has received intense public scrutiny and scientific investigation.
According to New Scientist, a weekly international science magazine, studies have shown that the occurrence of permanent brain damage is much more common among professional football players than the rest of the population. One source of this information is data collected from brain autopsies performed on deceased players. Now more advanced technological methods allow researchers to look at the brains of living NFL retirees.
Perhaps the most well-known of these more recent studies was conducted in the past year by a team of scientists from Imperial College London and the University of West Ontario. These researchers used various brain-imaging techniques, including fMRI to compare the brain functions of retired pro-football players with ordinary people. The study included 13 ex-NFL players (originally 15 players were going to be included, but two of them were to big to fit in the MRI machine). What the researchers found was that the players displayed a pronounced deficit in terms of coordinating functions in different parts of their brains, a problem known as hypoconnectivity. What’s more, this hypoconnectivity is shown to be correlated to the number of times a player was removed from play after sustaining a head injury.
The main cause of this brain damage seems to be repeated concussions received by players over the course of their careers. In connection with its documentary series, Frontline is also publishing an online “Concussion Watch” which keeps track of the number of concussions in the season. As of this writing, the tally is up to 53 for the 2013 season. So which positions are most at risk? Frontline also provides a breakdown by position which shows that cornerbacks suffer the most concussions (13 so far this season) followed closely by wide receivers (11). This is unsurprising since the positions are most likely to be involved in high-speed collisions on the field.
The question now is what can be done to lower the risk of concussion-induced brain damage in football. New Scientist reports one clever solution from electronics company MC-10 working in conjunction with Reebok. Together they are developing a special cap which displays a warning light whenever it senses that a player has received a potentially dangerous hit. Other innovative solutions such as this will be necessary to further reduce the risk of neurological injury among football players. Obviously in a hard-hitting contact sport there will always remain some degree of peril, but it is important that every action is taken to minimize the threat. No amount of fame and fortune is worth the price of irreversible brain damage.
By: Joshua Evans