Hidden Dangers Lurk on the Gridiron

Coming off a near-perfect 2007 season that ended tragically with an upset by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, New England quarterback Tom Brady was ready to reclaim the championship that had eluded him the year prior. However, just a few minutes into the Patriots’ season opener, a safety on the opposing team made a desperate dive for Brady’s knees. That was it. Brady fell to the ground, screaming in agony. Brady was not, however, alone. At the time this article went to press, 265 players of the approximately 1,700 players in the NFL were listed on the official NFL Injury Report by their respective teams. That’s over 15% of the players.

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, there have been 1,689 fatalities in football at the high school, collegiate, and professional level between the years of 1931 and 2006. While most on-field injuries are rarely immediately fatal , certain kinds of physical damage such as damage to the cervical cord may leave the player paralyzed. In fact, a study from the Congress of Neurological Surgeons noted that between 1977 and 1998, an average of 13 players each year suffered from permanent paralysis due to football related injuries. The majority of physical injuries in football, however, are not as serious. Brady’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear is among the most common football-related injuries, which also include strained muscles, fractures, dislocations, lacerations, and concussions. Most players are able to return to the field, or at least to their daily lives, within a few weeks.

Perhaps the most underestimated, underreported, and yet disturbingly common injury in football is concussions. A concussion is a traumatic brain injury caused by intense shaking or sudden deceleration of the head. This can occur, for example, each time you get hit by a 300-lb defensive tackle, something that is not all that uncommon in the NFL. This causes a rapid-fire of neurotransmitters that kills off receptors in the brain crucial for vital cognitive processes like memory and learning. A series of symptoms, such as nausea and blurry vision, may soon follow. Each time a player has a concussion, he becomes more likely to have another one in the future. After multiple concussions, the player runs a high risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), otherwise known as boxer’s dementia. CTE is characterized by the build-up of tau protein in the brain and has a wide range of symptoms including paranoia, depression, and memory loss. CTE has been blamed for many cases of mental instability in players’ post-football lives. Perhaps the most striking example is the recent suicide of former University of Pennsylvania football captain Owen Thomas, an otherwise healthy player who had been diagnosed with early-stage CTE.

Concussions and their long-term effects are pervasive in football, so much so that even the House Judiciary Committee decided to hold a hearing on its impact on the safety of NFL players. Even the relatively moderate arena of high school football is plagued by problems with concussions. One study from the Brain Injury Association of Arizona estimated that over 40,000 high school players suffer from concussions annually.

With all these potential dangers, football may begin to seem like a foolhardy risk. However, one Yale football player interviewed cautioned against holding such an extreme view. “Injuries are just part of a sport,” he explains. “There are definitely accidents that happen in football that can have adverse effects off the field, but [these accidents] are very rare and not much more prominent than in other sports.” Indeed, injuries is a common part of football, and most—if not all—football players step onto the field fully aware of the risks involved in playing the sport. Furthermore, advances in protective equipment and a growing awareness of the dangers of concussions have provided a safer playing environment for football compared to the past. Nevertheless, with such ominous statistics, it is impossible to deny the obvious dangers of taking part in such a physical sport.

All things considered, Tom Brady was indeed a pretty lucky guy. He hasn’t suffered any lasting injuries (yet), and he returned to lead the Patriots to the playoffs. One year later, he signed a contract to become the highest paid player in the NFL. Oh, and while he rested his knee, he had plenty of time to work on his personal life too. A few months after the injury, he married the world’s top-paid supermodel, Gisele Bündchen. Risk of cognitive degeneration and permanent paralysis aside, maybe football isn’t so bad after all.