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The End of Football: Can We See it Coming?

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Earlier this month, surefire Pro Football Hall of Famer Junior Seau committed suicide in his Oceanside, California home. Why would Seau -- a man who seemingly had so much to live for after his football career ended -- end his life at the young age of 43? Speculation is already rampant that his death was somehow related to the sport Seau played with such memorable passion and reckless abandon.

In the wake of Seau's suicide, valued reader California Pete wrote on this site:

Cal should drop football, now, and be at the vanguard of a rebooting of college athletics in the 21st Century featuring a more equitable, distributed emphasis on both men's and women's sports, on rugby and soccer and baseball and softball, as well as the dozens of other exciting sports played indoors, outdoors, and in the water. I will always cherish my memories of Cal football, and names like Nickerson, White, Pawlawski, Gonzalez, Lynch, Rodgers, et al. will always be heroes for me. And if I casually notice a 2012 Cal team led by Zach Maynard and family that jumps out to a surprise 4-0 start, it will be really hard for me to ignore. Really hard. But it's time. Get rid of the barbaric sport that American gridiron football has become. There is no reason why College Football Saturdays can't feature soccer in the Fall and rugby in the Spring. It works for most of the rest of the world. It could work here, too.

Now, the suicide for Seau has not yet been linked 100% to head injuries sustained as a result of his playing career. However, it is widely suspected that he committed suicide due to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). This is especially true considering that he shot himself in the chest and not the head, similar to former NFL player Dave Duerson.

In light of Seau's death, California Pete's thought provoking post, and serious concerns raised by others about the sport, CGB's writers and mods share their thoughts about CTE, Junior Seau, and the future of football. Read more after the jump.

Seau's suicide was reminiscent of last year's suicide of Duerson, who is probably best remembered for being a member of the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears defense. Duerson committed suicide in the same manner as Seau:

Duerson was found dead at his Sunny Isles Beach, Florida home on February 17, 2011. The Miami-Dade County medical examiner reported that Duerson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He sent a text message to his family saying he wanted his brain to be used for research at the Boston University School of Medicine, which is conducting research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy(CTE) caused by playing professional football. He left behind three sons and a daughter from his marriage to ex-wife Alicia Duerson. On May 2, 2011 researcher neurologists at Boston University confirmed that he suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions. Coincidentally, one year later, on May 2, 2012, fellow NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in a similar manner to Duerson. Many speculate that Seau's suicide, like Duerson's, may have been related to the concussions he sustained during his time in the NFL.

What is CTE? Let's take a look:

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease, diagnosed post-mortem in individuals with a history of multiple concussions and other forms of head injury. A variant of the condition, dementia pugilistica (DP), is primarily associated with boxing. CTE has been most commonly found in professional athletes participating in American football, ice hockey, professional wrestling and othercontact sports, who have experienced head trauma, resulting in characteristic degeneration of brain tissue and the accumulation of tau protein. Individuals with CTE may show symptoms of dementia, such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression, which may appear within months of the trauma or many decades later.

So will CTE and the other ill effects of football's physicality do harm to the game? Will the dangers eventually lead players and fans to abandon the sport? This idea is not something new that we at CGB came up with. The ESPN-affiliated website Grantland theorized that we might be seeing the beginning of the end of America's most popular sport.

This slow death march could easily take 10 to 15 years. Imagine the timeline. A couple more college players - or worse, high schoolers - commit suicide with autopsies showing CTE. A jury makes a huge award of $20 million to a family. A class-action suit shapes up with real legs, the NFL keeps changing its rules, but it turns out that less than concussion levels of constant head contact still produce CTE. Technological solutions (new helmets, pads) are tried and they fail to solve the problem. Soon high schools decide it isn't worth it. The Ivy League quits football, then California shuts down its participation, busting up the Pac-12. Then the Big Ten calls it quits, followed by the East Coast schools. Now it's mainly a regional sport in the southeast and Texas/Oklahoma. The socioeconomic picture of a football player becomes more homogeneous: poor, weak home life, poorly educated. Ford and Chevy pull their advertising, as does IBM and eventually the beer companies.

There's a lot less money in the sport, and at first it's "the next hockey" and then it's "the next rugby," and finally the franchises start to shutter.

Along the way, you would have an NFL with much lower talent levels, less training, and probably greater player representation from poorer countries, where the demand for money is higher and the demand for safety is lower. Finally, the NFL is marginalized as less-dangerous sports gobble up its market share. People - American people - might actually start calling "soccer" by the moniker of "football."

Ohio Bear: I feel like it's premature to count Junior Seau among the victims of CTE. He very well could be, don't get me wrong, but it feels like a rush to judge CTE as the cause just yet. I don't know anything about Seau other than his greatness on the football field. Was he depressed? Was he having trouble transitioning to non-football life? I don't know. Maybe we'll never know. It wouldn't make his suicide any less sad or any less tragic, but I'm going to withhold the CTE judgment until we have more information on that.

That said, I don't think it can be denied that brain injuries are a scary thing. They've probably been around the sport for decades, but we're just now learning more than ever about all the effects. Ultimately, if the sport cannot find a way to alleviate this problem, we may very well see some decline in football's popularity -- or at least a decline in the number of young men who chose to play the game. (I for one would rather not have my son play football, that's for sure.)

But wow -- giving up football entirely? I can see where California Pete is coming from, but I don't think I could ever go that far. I watch far less college football now than I have at any other point in my adult life, but the Cal games are an obsession I don't see myself shaking any time soon.

TwistNHook: The Grantland piece discusses what would happen if people sued the NFL. It is already a reality. There are many, many lawsuits pending against the NFL. Here is a link talking about one of them:

More than 100 former professional football players, including former Atlanta Falcons Jamal Anderson, Chris Doleman, and O.J. Santiago, are adding their names a growing list of players suing the NFL.

They join more than 1,500 other players who claim that the National Football League hid the dangers of concussions from them.

The latest lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta by attorney Mike McGlamry, states that the NFL "repeatedly refuted the connection between concussions and brain injury."

It goes on to assert that the organization failed "to take reasonable steps necessary to protect players from devastating head injuries. Moreover, the NFL has downplayed and misrepresented the issues and misled players concerning the risks associated with concussions."

Here is another one:

A group of former Dallas Cowboys including Hall of Famers Randy White, Bob Lilly and Rayfield Wright joined with other retired NFL players to file the latest concussion-related lawsuit against the NFL.

The suit, which accuses the league of ignoring a link between concussions and permanent brain injuries, was filed Tuesday in Houston's federal court and includes 28 former players among the plaintiffs.

In its 38 pages, the lawsuit accuses the NFL of negligence and material misrepresentation, fraudulent concealment, negligent misrepresentation and conspiracy. It alleges the NFL failed to effectively protect its players from brain injuries and later in life, dementia, resulting from repeated blows to the head.

"The bottom line is that the NFL has put its profits ahead of the health and well-being of its players," the complaint states.

" ... the NFL has purposefully sidestepped and obfuscated the concussion problem. As such, the NFL has consistently disputed the very real connection between concussions and brain injury."

This website appears to follow all the litigation regarding NFL concussions. So, it is definitely something happening right now.

solarise: I think Grantland's piece on the demise of football was greatly sensationalized. While I am sympathetic to their cause, the former NFL players' argument sounds like precrime to me. CTE was not hypothesized and confirmed until late 2002 if I recall correctly after the autopsy of Mike Webster. It's odd to me that the HoF players from the 60s like Randy White, Bob Lilly, and Rayfield Wright could join the suit against the NFL saying that it knowingly covered up the risks of CTE like Merck for Vioxx when the condition had not even been defined yet. My guess is that the legal strategy here is a big time settlement offer when the NFL bows down to public sentiment. I am not saying it's right or wrong, but NFL's legal minds will surely design appropriate responses, learning lessons once again from Merck's Vioxx case.

As for how CTE will affect our beloved game of football, I think technology will catch up to our bigger and faster players today. It's far too early to give up on new helmet designs and rule changes and shut football down. We have biomaterials that can better cushion hits. We have accelerometers to better measure forces upon impact to minimize potential brain trauma. In essence, I believe steps can be taken to design protective gears like airbags for players who enjoy playing the game of football. If introduction of airbags can dramatically reduce the mortality of accidents, I don't see why new technologies can't reduce the morbidity rate of CTE.



Former Cal linebacker Zack Follett had his NFL career cut short by injury. Follett knows what a concussion feels like and recently said he is glad to have walked away from the game.

Avinash: 1. What rule changes would you like to see that would make the game safer? Should football players be forced to tackle below the belt or incur penalty? Should head-on collisions (which happen a lot in the trenches) be outlawed?

2. How far could football go in its rule changes before you would begin losing interest in the sport?

TwistNHook: Fundamentally, I do not think there is much that can be done. As Avi noted, a lot of the injuries stem from collisions in the trenches. These aren't the so-called "dirty hits" that make the news. They happen every single play consistently and can be disastrous. What can be done there to avoid problems?

Ohio Bear: As crazy as it sounds, I heard a suggestion during an ESPN radio show that banning the three- or four-point stance might alleviate those types of injuries in the trenches. The school of thought was that starting low in the stance caused more head collisions and that the force with which such players collided would be lessened if the players started in a two-point stance or standing position.

LeonPowe: I was thinking about this earlier - what kind of game does it turn into if we eliminate plastic pads and hard helmets? If we use the soft type of padding that basketball players and rugby players wear - and soft helmets like rugby scrum caps wear - how much does that change tackling and football?

Berkelium97: I've wondered about the same issue that Leon Powe brings up.

When you ask rugby players about how dangerous their sport is, they often reference the fact that they believe it is safer than football due to the lack of heavy padding and helmets. They say that the pads and helmets give you a sense of lessened vulnerability, which allows you to play in a more dangerous manner. When you do not have that protection, you are more acutely aware of the danger that surrounds you. This forces you to play in such a manner that limits your exposure to injury and harm.

When you don't have a helmet, you're not going to lead with your head to try to take someone down. If your shoulders lack heavy padding, you'll be more cautious about leading with the shoulder to initiate a collision. Without a sense of invulnerability, you are forced to play within the limits of the human body.

Will we ever adopt rules to limit the amount of protection players have? That would be a tough sell.

ragnarok: Yeah, on the face of it, reducing padding to prevent injury is a fairly counterintuitive idea, and one that I just don't see taking hold. You'd almost have to start a different league from scratch, trying out the idea there, and even then, the new league would only succeed if it were both safer for players and more fun for fans to watch.

Hydro Tech: Getting rid of college football doesn't seem quite feasible for Cal from a financial standpoint. But ignoring the finance issues, and just confronting the issue that football is "barbaric" and too dangerous, I'm still not really convinced that football is a sport which should be banned/dropped.

Yes, it goes without saying that football is dangerous. It is perhaps the most dangerous of all the three major sports (football, baseball, basketball). Actually, it is. It's also more dangerous than rugby (no, wearing pads does not make the sport safer). Perhaps the only other sport that is comparable to football in terms of danger is boxing or MMA. In those two sports, the athletes repeatedly get hit in the head and/or body causing massive head or body trauma. But yet, nobody seems to be complaining about banning those sports. Why is that? What makes two dudes duking it out in a ring or an octagon A-okay, but players crashing into each other on the grid-iron not okay? Aren't the injuries comparable? I suppose proponents of football's ban would say that boxing and MMA aren't played in college, so perhaps I am comparing the proverbial apples to oranges. But am I?

A person who chooses to play football, just like boxing or MMA, does so knowing the risks involved with the sport. If they are willing to take that risk, then what's the big deal? Sure, seeing players get injured sucks. Sure, seeing players get a life-long injury sucks too. But if they chose to assume that risk, who are we to stop them? Furthermore, even if college football is dropped/banned, aren't we just postponing the injuries until adulthood? Aren't those talented college kids who can play in the NFL, and who join the NFL after college, just going to end up getting injured in the NFL? Most likely. So in other words, banning college football because it's too dangerous really doesn't solve the problem in my mind. It's just delaying the problem. Banning football all together seems like the only option. Good luck convincing the nation to back that idea. Football is the #1 sport in America and is America's new past time -- surpassing baseball as America's past time.

Bottom line, I just don't see the problem letting people who want to play the sport, and assume the risks involved, from playing the sport. Boxers box knowing they'll end up with brain damage. Cage fighters fight knowing they'll exit with brain damage, broken bones, or lost teeth. Hockey players still skate knowing they may lose teeth or sustain head injury from a fist, a cross check, or have their neck sliced open from a skate. Race car drivers race knowing they could slam into a wall at 200 mph and die instantly. To me, the dangers of football aren't any different than any other sport. I don't see why there is such a fuss about the injuries sustained in football compared to many other violent and dangerous sports.

Avinash: Here was a recap of the actual debate:

This seems to be the most interesting point.

One of Bissinger's points particularly stood out, and it both energized the audience and rendered his opponents all but powerless to rebut it. He argued, essentially, that we put an end to the increasingly tortured efforts to reconcile the larger missions of universities with what it takes for those universities to field successful football teams, by officially recognizing that the two are not reconcilable. He proposed that major college football programs that are already, in practice, run parallel to their universities -- out of their own increasingly grand departments and facilities -- formally split off into their own entities while retaining a tie to, and even the name of, the school from which they originated. "Create a de facto subsidiary," Bissinger proposed. "The university gets a licensing fee."

How do people feel about this?

Cugel: I have three thoughts regarding the "death of football."

One, from a personal level for roughly a half hour on November 7, 2009, the whole idea of football as worthwhile endeavor for young college age men to pursue seemed in question to me. How could we love such a sport as one that might paralyze a young man of such prodigious athletic gifts? I was haunted by what had happened as I walked home from Memorial. But in truth, only 7 days latter I was lustily cheering our Bears on to victory, and a fortnight latter I watched one of the most exciting Big Games victories, and I'm sure I screamed "get him!" when any Cal linebackers got near Andrew Luck. Am I a hypocrite? I don't know, but I do know that my love of the game is greater than my fear that someone might get hurt playing it.

Two, CTE may be a medical issue that effects many former football players, or it might be an issue that effects very few; at the moment the statistics are scanty. It may be the result of only repeated impacts, or there could be genetic or chemical interactions that contribute to its formation. There certainly are tens of thousands of former football players who don't appear to suffer from these dramatic effects. Without any doubt, this is only the beginning of discussion on this issue. I imagine that the NFL will institute various changes in the rules and equipment to lessen the possibility that playing the game will result in these injuries as the science advances. These changes will filter down to the College and High school games as well. But without any question, Football will remain a sport with some element of risk for the players, it's inherent in the very nature of the game.



Which leads to number three: this is America, have you lived here a while? There's no chance that the number one sporting passion in America is just going to disappear just because some of the players might get hurt. College football in particular has exploded since the adoption of the BCS formula. Critics may rail against the the illogic of institutions of higher learning running huge (and profitable) sporting enterprises, but then again, similar critics have been railing against this system for more than a hundred years, and nothing of great significance has changed, except that the sport has gotten bigger. More than 14,000 people are murdered in America each year, do we do anything about it? Well we keep on doing the same thing expecting different results, so no, not really. I can not envision an American that halts football for safety concerns, even if they are valid. That's just not who we are as a people.

norcalnick: A huge part of the appeal of college football (for me, at least) is an ongoing connection to my alma mater. The idea that I can root for players while they take classes in Wheeler, eat food in the dining halls and go home to an apartment on Dwight avenue is part of what keeps me engaged with the team.

And as much as we bemoan athletes that don't take school seriously and go pro as soon as possible, Cal football players still usually graduate at a rate not too dissimilar from the graduation rate of the student body as a whole (Yes, I am aware that Cal's APR numbers have been trending downward, and yes I am very disturbed by that trend).

But Bissinger's idea sounds akin to slapping the script Cal on a baseball cap and pretending that the San Jose Giants minor league team is the Cal baseball team. As a fan, that idea rings very hollow.

For all the time we spend (rightly) bemoaning the negative externalities of college football, we spend not enough time recognizing the positives it brings - one of which is the chance at a college education for hundreds of athletes who would not otherwise have a realistic chance to get one.

atomsareenough: The more we find out about the long term brain effects of football, the harder it is to be a football fan. Though, just because it's hard and conflicting doesn't mean we aren't still football fans. Life is complicated and confusing like that.

I don't think the sport is irredeemable, though. It's still a beautiful, grand sport in a lot of ways. I suspect that the changes in the game over the past few decades (bigger, more athletic players moving with more speed and mass, increases in pads and helmet technology to make them hit harder and with greater seeming impunity) have served to make the game less safe, but perhaps as it becomes clearer how these changes are affecting the players, the sport can evolve in a way that preserves the integrity and enjoyment of the game as well as being a little more fair to the players. Or maybe there will be a technological solution, but considering the basic physical nature of the collisions, it's hard to imagine what that might be. Otherwise the sport will be relegated to the status of boxing or MMA and college football will slowly wither away due to the liability issues.

In the meantime, I'm sure that programs will start being more cautious about concussions and such, whatever difference that makes. Football is so deeply embedded in our culture though, I don't really see it going away completely, and it certainly won't happen overnight.

At the very least, future generations of players will enter their sport with their eyes open, cognizant of the risks that they are taking.

What are your thoughts, CGBers? Share them in the comments.