Attention future parents: When the time comes, do not let your kids play football. Not only is the sport inherently violent, it carries the potential to inflict disastrous lifelong brain damage. Repeated brain trauma as a result of tackles and head collisions can result in memory loss, rage, dementia and suicidal depression. Football’s history is littered with tragic stories of retired, and even current players, suffering from these tolling effects incurred while playing one of America’s favorite sports.
Ralph Wenzel, former guard and seven-season veteran of the NFL, illustrates with emotion-gripping clarity the extent of this suffering. By the time of his death, Wenzel’s brain had shrunk to half its original size. Recalling the fear and pain of witnessing hallucinations colored by shouting and paranoia, his wife Eleanor warns that the suffering of brain-damaged former players extends beyond their own bodies and tremendously affects their loved ones.
Will Smith helped popularize CTE — Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy — in his 2015 Oscar-nominated film Concussion, where he portrayed Dr. Bennet Omalu and his discovery of this dangerous brain disease. According to Boston University’s CTE Center, CTE is a “progressive degenerative disease of the brain … with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head.”
In other words, repeated brain trauma as a result of successive physical injuries or bashings can lead to severe cerebral tissue damage. Effects include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and, eventually, progressive dementia.
Today, Ann McKee, director of the Boston University CTE Center in Massachusetts, shares that more than 95 percent of the 100 NFL players examined by her center had CTE. Since the disease is caused by repeated blows to the head, these figures are understandable. Football players pride themselves on their ability to embody brute strength, savage aggression and a relentless desire to bulldoze past any obstacle. Our obsession with Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Mode” epitomizes this idea. We glorify the incredibly strong, the dangerously determined, those who “leave everything on the field.”
Qualities such as dogged persistence and courageous effort surely deserve admiration. Yet, in American football these revered ideas merely perpetuate a domineering violence that has ruined the lives of potentially thousands of former players.
The discussion up to this point mainly concerns former NFL players. Although the majority of children will not play at the highest level, their brains (and hence their futures) face risks too steep to ignore if they choose to play football. Tackle football begins in the famed Pop Warner leagues, which start at age five. In these leagues, children play football more or less like professionals: full gear, full tackle, full risk.
It is no surprise that President Obama urged parents to “think long and hard” about letting their children play football (no, he would not let his children play either). McKee echoes these ideas, stating that she “would advise kids not to play any sports, such as tackle football, where they are exposed to repeated blows to the head.”
The long-term effects have been demonstrated: advanced dementia and, at worst, suicidal depression. While football is synonymous with America, we must urgently reconsider the devastating side effects of such a pastime. The solution is simple: If you love your kids, keep them out of football.
Don’t let your kids play football