A concussion crisis is consuming the game of football at every level, from pop-warner to professional nationwide. Football has suffered a major loss of support over the past few years, as disturbing information about the sport’s long-term traumatic effects on the brain has come to light. This decline in support, however, is not due to a drop in fans of professional football. The true threat to the future of football is the loss in youth participation, with parents becoming increasingly eager to pull their children out of the game.
Participation in youth football is decreasing across the nation at exponential rates. In the past five years, Michigan has lost 57 high school football teams, California, 28, and Missouri, 24, according to the Washington Post. In Highland Park, IL, a suburb of Chicago, a once-popular youth football program called the “Little Giants” entirely canceled its upcoming season after only 11 registered, a steep decline from its usual 100-plus sign-ups. The shocking information surrounding football-related head trauma — its connection to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in particular — has without a doubt led to the striking surge in children withdrawn from football programs.
CTE is a degenerative brain disease that causes depression, dementia, psychosis, memory loss, and/or death, and is found in many athletes with a history of repeated head trauma. It originally made headlines 12 years ago after it was discovered posthumously in NFL players who had committed suicide, like Dave Duerson and Andre Waters. It has likewise been found in countless high school and collegiate football players.
CTE is only confirmable in autopsies, and there is still much to be uncovered about the disease, but many doctors and neurologists have expressed concerns over the lingering traumatic effects of football on the brain. A recent study at Boston University confirmed cases of CTE in 110 of 111 brains of former NFL players, as well as 48 of 53 former collegiate football players. Dr. Bennett Omalu, who first discovered the disease, stated that allowing kids under the age of 18 to play football was “the definition of child abuse.” This is the type of information that athletes’ parents cannot ignore.
In addition to a diminution in youth participation, football also faces potential loss of support on a professional level. Former NFL player and ESPN/ABC football analyst Ed Cunningham recently and suddenly resigned from his esteemed position as a college football broadcaster after years of observing the damage and trauma that the sport induces. He told The New York Times in a recent interview that while he still supported the sport, he could “no longer be in that cheerleader spot.”
Cunningham appears to be the first professional football broadcaster to step away from the sport for safety concerns, possibly paving the way for other professionals to vocalize their own concerns. Ten years ago, Cunningham told The New York Times in a feature about football and head trauma that we’ve “turned a blind eye towards the violence.” A decade later, he’s finally following up on his word and contributing to the changing attitudes toward football nationwide.
Alongside other football superiors, Cunningham doesn’t necessarily call for an end to the sport; he just calls for new safety modifications. In his resignation speech, Cunningham shared some of his goals for increased safety in the game, such as limited contact before high school football and softer helmet exteriors. Plans to increase safety measures may have the power to revive substantial support for the game, but as long as the harrowing evidence of CTE continues to develop and influence the parents and families of athletes, football will more than likely face its eventual demise.