Is It Time for America to Give Up Football?


Written by Carly Verbeke:

Pete Sampras once said that baseball is America’s pastime, and the quote is still largely referenced today. However, the argument could also be made that baseball is out, and football is in. We watch football religiously on the weekends, riots have broken out over the results of games, and Thanksgiving has become less about actually giving thanks and more about getting the family together to watch the game. Superbowl Sunday might as well be declared a national holiday, too. It goes so far as to assume that if we have a son, we have put them in the junior league almost as soon as he could walk, because if we want him to be the next Tom Brady, we have to start him young. The American love for football runs deep, but it seems as though our awareness about the injuries that can ensue does not.

The most common baseball injuries include sprains, strains, fractures and concussions. With football, you’re lucky if you only get a concussion. That’s not to say that concussions aren’t dangerous – if someone sustains six or more concussions, they’re looking at permanent brain damage. However, in football you’re risking life-threatening spinal cord injuries (SCI) and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). We’re all inclined to think “well, that won’t happen to me,” or “that won’t happen to my kid,” but the fact is that it does. Spinal cord injuries and TBIs affect players at all levels, affecting children, college-age students, and adults.

While the leading cause of spinal cord injuries is attributed to automobile accidents, athletic activities and sports account for almost 10% of all reported SCIs. These types of injuries are most prevalent for males between the ages of 16 and 30. More than half of the catastrophic injuries that affect athletes in sports are some form of cervical spine injury, with the highest incidents affecting football and rugby players. Cervical spine injury is the most severe type of SCI, as nerve damage affects the upper spine and almost always causes permanent paralysis.10-15% of all football players, especially linemen and defensive players, experience cervical spine injuries.

A study of National Football League (NFL) spinal cord and axial skeleton-related injuries shows that 987 of the 2,208 spine and axial skeleton injuries that took place between 2000 and 2010 affected the cervical spine. Offensive linemen were the majority of athletes affected by the injuries, and the injuries occurred most during tackling and blocking maneuvers. However, as mentioned before, these things don’t happen exclusively to the professionals. According to a 2016 study by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research (NCCSIR) at the University of North Carolina, football has the highest number of direct and indirect injuries occurring in high school and college sports. In fact, the study shows that 81% of these injuries affected high school athletes. 53.5% of the injuries were serious but the players experienced some level of recovery, and 27.7% of the injuries were fatal.

The most shocking thing about these statistics is that most of those injuries could have been avoided. Like in any contact sport, there are best practices that players should follow to reduce the likelihood of sustaining serious injuries. Some of these practices may feel like common sense, such as wearing appropriate and proper-fitting protective gear like football pads and helmets; conditioning and strengthening muscles with exercises during team practices; increasing flexibility with stretching exercises before and after games; taking breaks to rest during practices and games; using proper forms and techniques; stopping activity when pain is experienced; and allowing adequate time for the body to recover from strenuous activity. It’s surprising, though, how many of these practices go ignored.

One of the more uncommon practices used to decrease the likelihood of catastrophic injuries include the improvement of safety efforts and emergency medical planning for games and practices. Many junior league, high school and college-level sports have minimum medical planning in place for their athletes, but having qualified medical personnel on-site at practices and games to handle and treat any severe injury could save a life.

Or, we could go back to having baseball as America’s favorite pastime.