Concussions Underscore Football’s Safety Issues

Jack Brewster, Columnist

Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. receives the snap, drops back, scans left and right and is immediately under pressure. Two Ohio State University defensive linemen are closing in fast. Armstrong abandons the pocket and bolts for an opening in the throng of gargantuan bodies before him. He gets the first down and keeps running.

But before he can safely run out of bounds, Ohio State safety Malik Hooker catapults himself into Armstrong’s legs, upending the quarterback. He flies through the air and crashes to the ground, his head taking the brunt of the force as his neck snaps backwards. Armstrong, a catalyst for a struggling Nebraska offense just seconds before, lays motionless on the ground, unconscious.

Moments later, he is carried off the field on a stretcher and rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Armstrong was placed into concussion protocol and missed two practices, but then resumed training as usual. Nebraska Head Coach Mike Riley said Armstrong “could be” cleared to play tomorrow in Nebraska’s game against the University of Minnesota.

In college football and the NFL, severe injury-inflicting hits like the one Armstrong endured this past weekend are almost commonplace. Watch a few football games on television this weekend and you’re bound to see a player suffer an egregious injury.

Last year, ThinkProgress found that after the first two games of the NFL season, nearly 15 percent of the league’s players had suffered injuries. Players endured 12 concussions, two neck injuries and 40 knee injuries in just the first two weeks of the season.

More and more people now acknowledge that football has an injury problem, especially in terms of concussions. Thanks to improvements in research and medicine, we are now much more aware of the severity of injuries as they happen and their effects on players down the road.

The long-term effects of injuries have soured some of the game’s most successful players. Bart Scott, Adrian Peterson, Drew Brees and Brett Favre have all come out and said that they will not encourage their kids play football because it is too dangerous.

Even cinema has shed light on the issue. Concussion, a film released last year, tells the story of Bennet Omalu, a doctor who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy by examining the corpses of former NFL players. CTE is a brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head — a common occurrence in football. Since Omalu’s discovery, we know the cause of depression, extreme mood swings and death in many young football players.

Just last week it was announced that Kevin Turner, a fullback for the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles who died in March at the age of 46, succumbed to CTE.

So why on earth do we continue to tune in and show up in droves to watch players severely injure themselves? Despite our understanding of the harmful effects of football, we continue to cheer as players bash their heads together on the grid iron.

When a player gets seriously injured, like Armstrong did this past Saturday, the audience is usually jarred. They hold their breaths as the player is carted off the field. They anxiously wait for news on the player and mutter something along the lines of, “Football sure is a violent game.” Then they go back to rooting for so-and-so to bash another guy’s head in.

America’s attention span for remembering the dangerous moments in football is way too short. In college football, the passivity is especially concerning.

Unlike the NFL, college players are not playing for money. The vast majority of them will not make it to the NFL to reap the rewards of their athletic talent. According to the NCAA, only 1.9 percent of college football players will play professionally. While some players benefit from scholarship and most will finish their degrees, it is incredibly difficult for them to get an adequate education due to their ridiculously busy athletic schedules.

Most college players severely endanger their long term health in exchange for a sub-par education and a few fond memories.

While the skull-crushing plays of football are exciting to watch, the sport leaves players with health issues that are felt for decades and can even end their lives. It’s time to hold the NFL and the NCAA accountable for saving the sport from itself. Football needs to change. Institute more fines and restrictions for how players can tackle. Pour more money into research for safer helmets and equipment. And provide both college and NFL players with medical support after their athletic careers are over.

Because, at the end of the day, football is just a game. CTE and brain damage are not.