Does Football Have a Future?

159799716full_custom-3f4d5c6add348057690390c71efd30859d2017c0-s900-c85.jpg

Just before Super Bowl Sunday, we had a chance to sit down with Chris Nowinski, a trailblazer in the concussion science field. Our conversation covered the state of football players' brains and the future of football. You've done extensive research into the effects that football has on people's brains. For the non-scientists out there, can you give a quick an overview of what everyone "absolutely must know"? 

We are trying to prevent two bad outcomes among football players. First, many players are developing post-concussion syndrome (PCS), or prolonged concussion symptoms that last months, years, or even are permanent. PCS is linked to both having too many concussions and/or having concussions that are not rapidly diagnosed and properly managed. That’s why we talk about the concussion protocol.

However, I believe the bigger problem facing football players is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the neurodegenerative disease caused by brain trauma that we recently diagnosed in 177 of 202 deceased football players studied at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank. Right now, it appears CTE risk is correlated to quantity and duration of head impacts (think pack-years in smoking and lung cancer), and we have no way to stop or slow the disease once it begins. Therefore, we are committed to prevention, as it appears incredibly easy to prevent CTE – just don’t expose yourself to voluntary brain trauma. Most identified cases have been in athletes  (military exposure and abuse cases have also been documented).

That’s why we launched Flag Football Under 14 (flagfootballu14.org): to educate parents that if they wait to enroll their child in tackle until high school, their child will still get all the perceived benefits of tackle football, but with a fraction of the risk of CTE.

In a recent NYT piece, Ken Belson described how football's biggest fans are "circling the bandwagon" to protect the sport. Senator Marco Rubio even said about the risk of football, "You know what else comes with risk? Life." What would you say to those people defending the sport to convince them change needs to happen?

I attended the USA Football national conference as well and listened to those speeches, too. I walked away with very little confidence that those currently leading youth football have the respect for science and the respect for brain health necessary to protect children from unnecessary harm. What I saw was an industry trying to perpetuate its own existence, rather than youth sports administrators organizing a game for the pure benefit of the children. I attended multiple speeches offering training on how to “change the narrative” around youth football, but zero offered training on the state of science and how to protect children.

Imagine you're being interviewed 20 years from now. Where do you think football will be as a sport? 

In 20 years, tackle football is no longer played before high school, and the high school game will be taught and played significantly differently, with less brain trauma as a result. The college and professional game will remain strong, because football played by adults (18+) is still an exciting entertainment product.

A bonus: Who wins?

Who wins what, the game? Whoever suffers the fewest concussions.