Football: It’s Safer Than You Think


Artwork by Aidan Scott

High school football is under attack. According to The National Federation of State High School Associations, participation in high school football has decreased by three percent last year, and ten percent since its peak in 2008. According to Forbes, at this rate participation could be below 1 million next year. It’s strange considering that football has always had the highest participation of any high school sport, consistently staying above 1 million participants. 

So what is causing this drop in participation? Concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. Parents are fearful of their kids participating perhaps due to a widespread notion that their children are more susceptible to these head injuries.

Concussions are caused by hits to the head that causes the brain to bounce or twist inside the skull. It is believed to contribute to CTE, a neurodegenerative disease caused by a buildup of a protein called Tau in the brain. CTE is caused by repeated blows to the head, namely, concussions. Symptoms typically begin eight to 10 years after the trauma, and include memory loss, mood swings, impulsive behavior, depression and suicidal thoughts. 

The Boston University School of Medicine looked at 111 brains of deceased NFL players and found that all but one percent of the players had CTE. It made headlines at almost every major news outlet and has been a driving force that is dissuading parents from allowing their kids to play football. But it shouldn’t be. Here’s why:

First, the players studied came from the age of giant shoulder pads and helmets that had a fabric suspension system and a single bar facemask that was used for the sole purpose of preventing your skull from cracking open. The NFL was a run-heavy, hardnose, smash-mouth game. Most quarterbacks threw for around 3,000 yards in a season. Football then wasn’t exactly what we have today. Quarterbacks can throw up to 5,000 yards in a season, in a game centered around passing, speed and finesse, instead of running, brute force and big hits. 

With this change in play style, equipment also improved. Shoulder pads are smaller and lighter, and helmets are designed to reduce the force on a player’s head. A current player’s chance of getting CTE would now theoretically be lower than the players involved in the study.

The study also only included NFL players. I hate to break it to young players, but they are probably not going to go pro or even get a scholarship after high school. The probability is extremely low. So when parents read this study, they should remember that they are studying NFL players, not high school players. NFL football is significantly different than high school football. The very best football players in the world are going to be faster, stronger and more skilled than some scrawny high school kids that haven’t even finished puberty. There is no common denominator.

Many parents have made concussions synonymous with football, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Other sports have concussion rates comparable to football. According to the Colorado School of Public Health 2018-2019 study, 26.5% of injuries in high school football games were concussions. This seems like a lot until you compare it to other high school sports, such as boys’ soccer, a sport with somewhat limited contact. 24.5% of injuries in soccer games were concussions. Wrestling has a rate of 28.5 %, boys’ ice hockey with 28.6% and lacrosse had a rate of 24%. Additionally, girls’ sports almost always had a higher rate of concussion than their male counterparts. Concussions clearly aren’t limited to football, as many people think.

So how can we improve the playing experience, so the game becomes safer? Well, it’s already happening. Shoulder pads are smaller and safer than ever before. Helmets now flex and deform on impact to direct energy from a hit away from the player. Rules of the game are changing to improve player safety. NFL and college players are penalized for unnecessary, violent play. Coaching has improved, and players are taught to tackle differently and keep their head out of the play. 

We need to focus on improving the game to make it safer, rather than boycotting football and getting rid of it altogether.

Don’t get me wrong, you can get hurt playing football; but it isn’t the injury-filled, brain-destroying sport that it can often be portrayed as.