As more parents in the United States see the link between football and brain damage, the game we love is about to change. Many will tell their teenage boys, “You can do any sport you want … except tackle football.” What remains will be a gladiatorial sport.
We now know that soccer harms players through repeated trauma and long-term brain damage. From the NFL to Pop Warner’s youth leagues, the game, training, and equipment must adapt to reduce damage. Decades of data tell us what needs to change.
I have been representing professional athletes since 1975 and had been concerned about the health of football players long before a former NFL player was first diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 2002.
In the late 1980s, I sat in the stands at Sun Devil Stadium and watched a young quarterback, who was also my client, when he played against the Arizona Cardinals. I watched a defense attorney fire him and knock him to the ground. Blood oozed from his ear as he lay motionless on the floor. My heart pounded as I stared at this young athlete and wondered aloud if he was dead. After what felt like an eternity, he gradually regained consciousness. As I watched the paramedics help him off the field, I felt a surge of relief, immediately followed by a crisis of conscience.
30 years ago, I had to choose between leaving the industry or working from the inside to make it better. The players and I made a lot of money when their careers began, but I had a responsibility to my customers to do more than just enrich our bank accounts. Your long-term health was more important than anything else.
With that the decision was clear, so I had a new mission: to thoroughly understand concussions, the components of injury, long and short term damage, recovery, education and prevention. I’ve worked with a number of neurologists and concussion safety advocates and hosted conferences to bring the latest medical information to the players and their families, the leagues, the teams, and the public.
Since the late 1980s, we’ve learned so much about the risk to athletes in collision sports like hockey, field hockey, and even AYSO soccer. The pre-puberty brain is particularly vulnerable. Repeated blows over years increase the risk. A 2017 report on the brains of 111 former NFL players who died between the ages of 23 and 89 found that almost all of them had CTE. Just one brain didn’t.
Now we have a sense of how dangerous repeated blows to the head can be. To their credit, the NFL has adopted and enforced concussion protocols that clearly remove injured players from the field. But football hasn’t changed enough. In some ways, it’s getting worse with a new generation of bigger, stronger, and faster athletes who collide much harder than their predecessors.
The best way to keep football alive is to ensure standardized safety protocols not only in professional leagues but also in college, college and youth sports. The following steps would be a good place to start. They are based on what we know today, what we didn’t know in 1975, and the list should change and grow as we learn more.
- Take hitting out of training camp and exercises for kids and professionals. Save it for the games. This could drastically reduce concussions. The NFL could make that change immediately, and other leagues would follow suit.
- Leagues and coaches need to demand better blocking and attacking techniques that don’t involve the head and neck. These must be taught early and the dangerous current practices should be banned.
- Delay the age kids are allowed to play tackle football. Younger brains are still developing.
- Develop and need new helmets and padding on your head to protect the brain.
- Continue to support research into new treatments for concussions and ensure injured players receive the best possible care to minimize long-term damage from head injuries. Some examples available now or on the horizon include a nasal spray given immediately to keep an acute injury from causing long-term damage, or treatments to help the injured brain heal, such as hyperbaric oxygen or repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation and neurofeedback.
Until brain injuries are curable, a few simple precautions would save countless gamblers untold suffering.
I believe that sports like soccer, hockey and soccer convey great values and mastering them gives invaluable life skills. It builds camaraderie and lifelong friendships. For the lucky and hard-working few, playing can even be lucrative work for a few years. None of this is worth risking brain health.
Leigh Steinberg is a sports agent, philanthropist, and author.