Does Football Jeopardize the Safety of Athletes?

The silhouette of a brain encompassed by a football. Brain damage and brain injuries will always be a part of football. It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when. Image by Pearl McNames.

The essence of football is violence: physical domination of the opposition. The suffering of athletes is consumed as entertainment. Football players who endure debilitating pain are worshipped, praised for their toughness. We are teaching young men that their bodies are their only asset. Todd Trigsted, the producer of Gridiron Gladiators, a documentary investigating the safety and culture of football, says, “Knowing what we know now about the risks of the game, why do parents continue to helmet their kids?” 

“Football has penetrated the very fabric of American life; it has become an institution and part of our identity,” asserts the Gridiron Gladiators narrator. Numerous colleges across the country are revered not for their academic reputations, but for their football programs. In fact, a large portion of financial donations given to educational institutions are funneled directly into football programs. Not only is this unfair to the less prominent athletic programs, but it teaches football players that their worth is defined by their performance on the field alone, compromising their academic pursuits. 

In addition to promoting harmful falsities about masculinity, football causes irreversible physical damage to athletes. Although concussion detection and monitoring protocol has improved astronomically, and helmet technology has developed rapidly in recent years, football’s brain trauma epidemic remains unresolved. Franklin football player Diego Galvez says the safety of football is in part determined by the honesty of athletes; he urges players to advocate for their health by reporting all concussion symptoms to an athletic trainer. 

Football frequently produces catastrophic career ending concussions, but it is the widespread subconcussive brain damage that has proven to be even more alarming. A subconcussive injury, as defined by The Guardian, is: “the phenomenon in which the brain hits the inside of the skull causing trauma but without players showing the obvious symptoms of concussion.” These relatively mild, repeated hits to the head can cause Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive, in some cases fatal, brain condition that results in loss of memory, impulse control problems, and uncharacteristic aggression. 

Despite the myriad of risks, for many athletes football is an invaluable outlet. Football teaches athletes how to summon courage in a state of fatigue and physical vulnerability. Trigsted reflects, “Kids learn how to do their best and not lose their spirit to try when faced with adversity.” 

However, football also teaches men to wield their bodies as weapons. Young men are being led to believe lack of self-control and aggression are virtues. “Kids that play football have less fear of pain. Football players are taught to push and tackle, so they may exhibit more physical aggressiveness,” Trigsted explains. 

How can our society continue to glorify a game that jeopardizes the safety of athletes? As more research surrounding concussions and subconcussive injuries is published, resistance to the violent game of football will intensify. “Any child who is 16 and under should not play the game. They should play flag football, they shouldn’t be helmeted. Because their brains are too fragile, there is just too much risk.” Trigsted states, “I think football should be abolished in junior high school and high school. But culturally football is too powerful.” 

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