Op Eds

Pigskins on the Brain

On Thursday, 32 players will be picked in the first round of the 2010 National Football League Draft.  Although these men will most likely find success and celebrity in the near future, the quality of their health will begin to trend downward. During the past year, much has been made about the seriousness of head injuries suffered by football players and the support that the NFL provides for them in the aftermath. These discussions concern both long-retired players and those still taking the field today, and they reached a high point in Nov. 2009, when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that the two chairmen of the league’s brain injury committee had resigned. This announcement came just one month after Goodell faced questioning from the House Judiciary Committee in Oct. 2009.

The wave of criticism of the current league procedures have come both from high-profile players dealing with multiple concussions and from new research from the study of deceased football players’ brains. The facts from the latter are clear: Studies from the Center of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University suggest that there is a strong correlation between repetitive head trauma and accelerated rates of dementia,  and other studies link the number of concussions with a higher predisposition to depression. The question now revolves not around the validity of the harm of concussions in football but what to do about them.

Although former players may want the NFL to agree to cover the cost of psychological and medical care for retirees dealing with lagging head injuries, this only deals with the end result of the problem. Players and advocates are also searching for rule changes, but that, too, will only result in inadequate, quick fixes.

The reality of the entire situation is that American football is an extremely dangerous game. Although the NFL released a new list of rules that would “try to stay proactive” in protecting its players, no amount of yellow flags, yardage penalties, or player fines can stop serious injuries from taking place. The game of football and its players have evolved to such a stage of speed and strength that physicists calculate that an average-sized player can deliver over 1600 pounds of force in a single tackle. This is not a game that can be “injury proofed.”

The missing piece in all of these discussions, therefore, is not the league, but the players. This is the case from seasoned veterans to eager rookies, from professionals to peewees. Just as construction workers and deep-sea fishermen do, the men who are entering a season or a career in football must face the inherent danger of that decision. Although the NFL is an industry and a business, it cannot and should not assume responsibility for the havoc wreaked upon the bodies of its employees, who have a choice whether or not to partake in its violence.


The physical and mental well-being of the players are important, and the league should strive within reason to make its product safer. But in the end, the gridiron can never be kind to the body. Professional sports are crucially different from construction or deap-sea fishing, both of which deal with worksite injuries as a necessary evil. The goal and practice of these latter jobs is not to be harmed, whereas serious contact is a part of football’s standard operating procedure.

Does this mean that football should not be played at all or that any sign of pain should bring a player to the sidelines? No, and no. What must take place, not just in football but across the sporting world, is for players to exercise personal responsibility over when and how long they compete. This should be the case for all injuries but especially in the case of head trauma. A team’s medical staff is critical to the diagnosis and treatment of injuries, but the player must know the risks involved and be able to make the tough decision of sitting out a big game or staying off of the field for the fourth quarter. This method has been practiced sparingly, the early retirement of Tiki Barber being one lonely example.

The grit and toughness of many NFL players is admirable, but although we can marvel at their on-screen and on-field bravery, we cannot excuse them from any responsibility for wheel chairs and brain damage later in life. The physicality of football is what defines it and makes it thrilling, but players must gauge and consider the repercussions of a lifetime of hits. Ideally, behind the smiles of tomorrow’s draftees, there will have been a great deal of thought about the career choice they have just made.

Marcel E. Moran ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Eliot House.