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In recent years, the notion that football will destroy your brain has become almost household knowledge. Parents withdraw their kids from the sport, and avoid it all together – simply because they believe the game encourages such behavior. NFL players have even retired due, in part, to the scary-physical, injury-causing nature of the game. Many even believe that the NFL might not exist in a decade’s time. And with how things are looking, that vision might come to reality. The way the NFL (and it gets worse as it goes further down, into college, and absolutely horrendous at the high school level) lacks to enforce their helmet-to-helmet contact rule, and almost encourages it with their restrictions on other hits.
My name is Isaac Schell. I am currently a senior in high school, and I will be playing the sport at a college level. I play offensive and defensive line, and I have loved every single second I’ve spent on the practice and game fields. However, I’m on the front lines. Not only in the game’s aspect, but I’m also on the front lines for concussions, head drama and CTE. I’ve pulled on so many power plays, to so many linebackers waiting for me with their heads down, ready to engage in helmet-to-helmet contact, as if it was natural. These collisions occur on literally Every. Single. Play.. I’ve had multiple concussions, and I can assure you there’s only a few things that come close to as physically dreadful and unnerving as having your brain injured.
What IS CTE?
Boston University tells us that “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma (often athletes), including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head that do not cause symptoms. CTE has been known to affect boxers since the 1920’s (when it was initially termed punch drunk syndrome or dementia pugilistica).” This disease has been around since the dawn of violent sports, and has just recently been brought to light through the media.
The Game of Football, as We Love It:
Football, in the simplest terms, is defined by Google as “a form of team game played in North America with an oval ball on a field marked out as a gridiron.” Wikipedia tells us football is “a team sport played by two teams of eleven players on a rectangular field with goalposts at each end. The offense, which is the team controlling the oval-shaped football, attempts to advance down the field by running with or passing the ball, while the defense, which is the team without control of the ball, aims to stop the offense’s advance and aims to take control of the ball for themselves. The offense must advance at least ten yards in four downs, or plays, and otherwise they turn over the football to the defense; if the offense succeeds in advancing ten yards or more, they are given a new set of four downs. Points are primarily scored by advancing the ball into the opposing team’s end zone for a touchdown or kicking the ball through the opponent’s goalposts for a field goal. The team with the most points at the end of a game wins.” The game is complicated, rough and it feeds on our age-old desire for violence. Some would even argue that helmet-to-helmet contact is unavoidable, sometimes even necessary. However, that is simply not the case. With some simple changes , without disrespecting the game’s integrity, the game can be improved for the young men devoting their lives to it, without cutting theirs short.
The Game of Life, as We Know It:
The meaning of life is an age-old question that has pondered the minds of scholars and intellects since the beginning of time. Some will tell you to enjoy it and be happy. Some will tell you to chase money, be on top, make your name memorable. Some will tell you we’re meant to spread the word of God, represent it, and act in his image. However, one thing everyone agrees on, is that life is valuable. Without life, we literally have nothing. The game of football is great, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love it. However, the bottom line is this; the average life expectancy of a human diagnosed with CTE is 51 years. The average life expectancy of any human, in general, is 72 years, and most healthy people will potentially live on to be 80, 90, and even 100 years old. CTE has the potential to cut 20-50 YEARS off of your lifespan. That’s 20-50 years you could spend loving your wife, loving your family, being a good person, impacting the world. 20-50 years you’ve lost because some refs in high school didn’t care to enforce helmet-to-helmet regulations.
NFL Rules: At minimum, a helmet to helmet hit results in a 15-yard penalty. In terms of severity, 15 yards is the largest ball-movement penalty issued by the NFL. However, in 2007, the NFL encouraged referees to eject any player deemed to have flagrantly committed a helmet to helmet violation. Special emphasis was placed on players in defenseless positions, making them the most vulnerable to serious injury. It is worth noting that contact between helmets alone does not mandate a penalty. Often times helmets clash after shoulder pads collide. These collisions are expected and remain part of the violent nature of the game. Instead, the penalties in place are meant to prohibit contact initiated with helmets.
NCAA Rules: No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent (See Note 2 below) with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder. This foul requires that there be at least one indicator of targeting (See Note 1 below). When in question, it is a foul (Rules 2-27-14 and 9-6). (A.R. 9-1-4-I-VI).
High School Rules: While I could not find a specific statement on helmet-to-helmet contact, both spearing and targeting are 15-yard penalties and warrant a possible ejection.
The truth is, no one cares. The refs don’t enforce any sort of helmet-to-helmet rule, and when they do it’s on only the most obvious of instances. I have played in, and watched, four years of varsity high school football. The amount of times I have seen a penalty for helmet-to-helmet collisions can be counted on one hand. As for NFL and NCAA, I have been viewing for almost a decade and I’m not sure I’ve seen more than twenty. And honestly, how do you enforce it when it occurs on every play? A penalty after every play would not only be bad for entertainment, but for the overall value, and enjoyment of the game, not only for the viewers, but the players as well.
Once again, the issue is that nobody cares. The fans, the players, the coaches, the refs, the LEAGUES, even sometimes the medical staffs, don’t act enough to make this a serious issue. It’s seen as nature, as part of the game. “Man up!” “It’s a man’s game!” “It happens!” “It’s football!” are all various cliches used to justify players lowering their heads and catapulting themselves into another player’s brains- their centers for function, their centers for life. IT IS NOT OKAY. And it needs to stop. Some argue that it’s difficult, and almost impossible in real-time. That is simply not true. It’s as simple as not leading with your head, whether it’s to get off the line or to make a tackle.
The (Non-Health/Death Related) Consequences:
Yes, NFL. Your precious dollars are at stake. People are starting to take notice. People are dropping out of the sport, and deciding not to partake at all. Less athletes, less viewers, less income. Some are even predicting that this will become a legal issue, and certain people predict the NFL won’t even exist in 10-years time. And, at least to me, this is a problem with a simple solution.
The (Proposed) Solution:
People, other than football mothers, must care. We need people to realize, and react to, the effects of this poorly-managed aspect of the game we love. Rules must be made, and enforced often. This can’t be implemented immediately, but all helmet-to-helmet contact must be penalized, and all intentional forms must lead to an ejection, and/or a serious fine. I know that sounds crazy, impossible even, but hear me out. I say the NFL, the NCAA, and whatever leagues that would adopt said rules, give teams a couple years to get used to the change. Players that grew up with reckless abandon for their head can’t magically be cautious the next day. Give them time to practice, play and adapt to a football that’s not only the same football we’ve known and loved for centuries, but a football that’s also safe, and that we can know and love for centuries to come.
I know this article might come off as weak, cautious and/or sensitive. Honestly, I just want to live.
And I want the game to live too.
NCAA Contact Rule: https://www.sbnation.com/college-football/2016/9/7/12829482/targeting-penalty-rulebook-ncaa-football
NFL Contact Rule: https://healthfully.com/nfl-rules-regulations-helmet-helmet-6729939.html
CTE Definition: https://www.bu.edu/cte/about/frequently-asked-questions/
Football Definition: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_football
CTE Lifespans: https://www.disabled-world.com/health/neurology/cte.php
Average Lifespans: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy