Head Case: What Are You Giving Up to Play?
Junior Trevor Lopez will never play competitive football again. Years of hard hits and gruesome blows to the head have taken their toll on Lopez, who has had a passion for the game ever since seventh grade. Up until now, football has been the centerpiece of Lopez’s life; to see it come to an end was devastating. But he is not alone.
Every year, an average of 12 high school and college football players die as a result of injuries sustained from the sport. Most of these are the results of second impact syndrome, in which a second concussion occurs before the first one has healed fully. The deaths are often preventable – a result of players, coaches, and referees not addressing the seriousness of a concussion.
During a concussion, the force of being hit in the head shakes the brain which is floating freely inside the skull, causing bruising. Helmets protect against the impact on the skull, but don’t prevent concussions. A build up of bruises on the brain can cause long term damage including dizziness, memory loss, depression, Alzheimer’s, and damage to the senses. “It was terrible. It felt like I was wearing a helmet and the helmet was just squeezing in on itself slowly,” Lopez said, remembering his first concussion.
It was terrible. It felt like I was wearing a helmet and the helmet was just squeezing in on itself slowly.
Coach Jon Black’s varsity team has only suffered one concussion this season, thanks to their new practice method which involves rugby style tackling and focuses on protecting the head, but he recognizes that a new practice philosophy alone does not solve the problem. “I would say the way that we practice tackling probably helps,” Black said. “We teach our kids to practice tackling with their heads up, and I think part of it is just luck.”
According to Robert Cantu, a professor of neurosurgery at the Boston University School of Medicine, second impact syndrome has a 50 percent mortality rate, and the player is 100 percent likely to have neurologic deficiencies even if he survives. “Had I been told the concussion statistics of death and brain damage by my coaches or doctors, I would’ve stopped playing [earlier],” Lopez said.
Concussions happen more often to high school players because their developing brains make them more vulnerable to catastrophic head injuries compared to college and NFL players, according to a peer review of head injuries in football. Once the first one has healed, players are not in the clear. University of Pittsburgh’s Brain Trauma Research Center found that the risk of reinjury increases with each concussion. If a player has had two concussions, then a third is 2-4 times more likely, and if they have had three concussions, then they are up to nine times more likely to receive a fourth concussion.
While it is true that football is not the only sport with risks of concussions, it poses by far the largest threat, with three out of every four high school players sustaining one or more concussions during their career, according to the Sports Concussion Institute.
Football injuries are common, affecting millions of kids every year. According to a study conducted at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Center for Injury Research and Policy, 38 percent of all severe injuries in the nine sports studied occur in football, and 69.3 percent of the severe football injuries are results of player-to-player contact.
The past twenty years has seen an increasing awareness of the dangers of football. In 2005, evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, commonly referred to as CTE, was in found in the brains of former football players. CTE, caused by repetitive hits to the head, is described as a “progressive degenerative disease of the brain most commonly found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head,” by Dr. Bennet Omalu, who first discovered the disease in football players. As of now the only way to diagnose CTE in someone is by examining their brain in an autopsy.
Even Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump squaring off didn’t surpass the viewing record set by the Broncos and Panthers in Super Bowl 50. But for all that attention, most ignore the serious risks posed in the sport. “If most people knew how high the risk was for concussions, what concussions can cause, then they wouldn’t have as many players,” Lopez said.
The game of football always came naturally to Lopez. The very first time he touched the ball during a game, he scored a touchdown. From that point on he excelled, and was placed on teams full of players older and almost a full foot taller than him. The players were stronger, faster, and hit harder than Lopez, and often times, he came off the field shaken up. “I think I had the skill set to play against older people,” Lopez said. “But I didn’t know what I was getting into before I played.”
Six concussions later, he will be on the sidelines for the rest of his life, with retinal damage and the fear of future neurological disabilities to show for his years on the turf. “I have to wear glasses now,” Lopez said. “My vision wasn’t perfect before, but now that I have [to wear] glasses… it’s different. It’s strange.” Lopez felt the effects of his concussions off the field as well, and explained how that impacted his everyday life. “At first, I thought it was just a headache, and I wasn’t really sure. I went to school, and actually it just hurt so much that I couldn’t even focus in class. I couldn’t do anything,” he said of his first concussion. Things only got worse from there, as his brain couldn’t handle the repetitive blows to his head. In his most recent concussion, he lost consciousness. “That was probably the freakiest one, because I’d never actually passed out before,” Lopez said. “After that, my doctor told me that after six concussions, there’s a very increased amount of brain damage, and that there’s a serious, serious risk after that much, and that when I’m older I might have memory loss, or be disabled in some ways mentally.”
This news from the doctor turned out to be the best and worst thing Lopez had ever heard, as it changed his perspective on the game that he loved. He decided to stop playing football to avoid future damage. “I felt scared,” Lopez said. “I didn’t think I was at risk. No one had informed me prior to that of the risks of concussions.”
Lopez believes that all he was doing was demonstrating the proper form which he had been taught. It was the poor technique of others which left him walking off the field shaken up and concussed. “The coaches did their job and taught all of us the right way to tackle so that we can prevent injuries to best that we can,” Lopez said. Even while exhibiting the proper form, he sustained injuries that pose both future mental and physical health risks. He says that the reason that injuries are still very present in youth and high school football is because while the coaches drill perfect form into the heads of their players, it all goes out the window when a big play is made. “The game itself is dangerous, but the technique makes it somewhat safer.” Lopez said.
“The coaches work a lot on offense and defense teaching great form,” Lopez reiterated, “but the reason it is so dangerous is because they reward those who hit harder and do the dangerous things.” Even though it was the opposing player that was playing dangerously, it was Lopez who came away with injuries.
‘They reward those who hit harder and do the dangerous things.’
“When kids get hurt, It’s not so much that they do it on purpose,” Coach Black said. “It’s bad form. They kind of forget what they’re doing and maybe they’re out of position or they’re not very experienced, and that’s what causes them to get into trouble.” Black’s son, a former Tam football player, suffered a concussion while on the team. He attributes it to improper training. “The kid came in with the helmet and just hit [my son] right in the face,” Black said. “…That was a play where I think the kid was coached to hit as hard as he could.”
Ex-football player and junior Nicki Brass said the pro game glorifies the most violent hits. “If you watch any college football or NFL biggest hit highlights, there’s always one guy on the ground at the very end who is just lying there, completely injured or messed up,” Brass said. Lopez added to this opinion on football highlights, saying that many people forget to think about the injured player. “I’m scared for the player,” he said. “I kind of feel like a parent watching their kid. It’s really scary knowing what can happen from that. I’m worried.”
Many players will stay silent and not act upon injuries in order to avoid missing playing time and potential scholarships or recruitment. But it is important to address issues and think about your future outside of football, as Brass did. He showed potential in his freshman and sophomore seasons, but chose to quit the sport when he realized that this fear of concussions and brain damage could very easily become a reality.
Knowing that one concussion can open the door to more, he decided it wasn’t worth the risk. “I didn’t want to continue the trend of head injuries,” Brass said. His concussion was not his fault, yet he paid the price. It was the poor technique of the defender that led to a helmet-to-helmet hit. This is because of the player’s lack of instruction and taking advantage of the refs, who are not as assertive as they need to be in order to protect the players at the high school level. “I am fairly certain that the player who [gave me a concussion] knew that [the illegal hit] would not be called and wasn’t taught how to hit properly,” Brass said. “So with proper teaching and refereeing, that injury could have easily been prevented.” As a player of high value, he felt pressured to return to the field before his concussion healed. Like Lopez, Brass found that dangerous plays were often rewarded by coaches, leading to more serious injuries. This pattern mirrors the NFL: in 2009 it was discovered that players for the New Orleans Saints were being paid secret bonuses for injuring opponents with illegal hits in the infamous Bountygate. They won the SuperBowl the next year.
According to Brass, the “tough guy” attitude surrounds all levels of football. Brass said that one of the main reasons for this attitude is the belief that your pads and helmet make you invincible. Without pads, it could be a safer game. “Look at rugby. They get beaten up, but head injuries are almost non existent. And in football, the second we put a helmet on a head, it is used as a weapon,” Brass said. “In a way, the more padded up we get, the more protected we feel, and the harder we hit….Naturally, you’re going to want to protect your head. But when you have a helmet on, you [think] that [your] head is now a weapon; it’s fully protected, even though that’s a false sense of protection.”
‘In a way, the more padded up we get, the more protected we feel, and the harder we hit …. that’s a false sense of protection.’
Former Tam players and juniors Alex Naqvi and Ben Whitaker have both sustained brutal concussions while playing football. Whitaker was blindsided during a game and was out for over five weeks. “I got knocked out on the field and had to go to the hospital…I don’t remember anything from that day,” he said. According to Whitaker, that’s just something that happens in football, no matter the equipment and rule changes.
Naqvi recalled countless practices in which he sustained a potential concussion and the coach pressured him into staying on the field. He described a football coach he had in middle school who was especially encouraging of dangerous play and hard hits. Whenever a player appeared tentative to step up and make an aggressive and potentially dangerous play, the coach would slam a helmet on top of the player’s helmeted head and tell him to get aggressive.
He explained that during freshman practice, he had a full on head-to-head collision with another player and collapsed. For a few seconds he couldn’t get up, and when he looked up everything he saw was blurry. Naqvi said he asked the coach if he could play at a half speed without his helmet, since it was giving him a headache to wear. The coach, he said, sent him back on the field, with a headache and feeling almost certain that he had a concussion.
People often see the big hits during games and assume that those are the source of the concussion problems. However, 60 percent of high school football concussions occur during practice. Drills specific to an exact moment in a game can result in the repetition of a dangerous play. Almost all of the offensive line drills involve two players running at each other at high speeds. One drill involves one player running towards a cone, with an oncoming defender trying to knock him down before he gets there. Head-to-head hits often occur in this drill, which is a source of many concussions. “I don’t see a lot of people coming out with [visible] injuries in [these drills], but you can tell that over time it can’t be very good for your head,” Naqvi said.
However, there may be a solution to injuries during practice, which occur quite frequently. Dartmouth College’s engineering program has developed a tackling robot which can move up and down the field and simulate a real player’s running patterns. Dartmouth has stopped all drills that involve players tackling each other and has seen injuries drop 80 percent. Head coach Buddy Teevans said on the Late Show that his goal was that “no Dartmouth player will ever tackle another Dartmouth player.”
The NFL has put almost 40 rules in place both on and off the field in efforts to decrease concussions, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Though the number of reported concussions fluctuates from year to year, it remains significantly over 200 despite attempted reforms. In 2014, 206 were reported, but by 2015 it had jumped back up to 271. Even with all of these changes in football regarding the rules, technique, and practice methods, concussions are still a major problem. NFL commentators have said countless times during a dangerous play that there is no way of avoiding certain plays that cause head injuries. This begs the question: is the game of football fundamentally unsafe?
“[Football] inevitably will always be at times an unsafe sport,” Naqvi said. Junior Gabe Villavicencio, a varsity football player, agreed with Naqvi. “It’s kind of inevitable that [concussions] are going to happen. You’re always gonna be hitting someone else,” Villavicencio said. He added that players of high value can generally get less time to recover from a concussion, in order to help the team. “If you really are a big part of the team, the coaches might pressure you more,” he said. Villavicencio also agreed with Lopez about proper technique being essential to the protection of players. “All I can say is that the only way to prevent concussions is to really know how to tackle and always keep your head up, and remember that your head is what you’re going to have to protect the most,” Villaviencio said.
Whitaker argued that contact and injury will always be part of football. “Implementing rules will just change the game for the worse,” Whitaker said. “I think you have to accept the fact that [concussions] are just part of the game.” Football at its core is entertaining because the premise is to see athletes in top physical shape collide with one another. Many think that making certain hits illegal would take away its main attraction. Players need to consider all risks and variables that come with football.
What are you giving up to play the game?
Graphic by Lucky Shulman