It’s fall in Paris Tennessee. A Friday night; the brisk wind carries the leaves that are beginning to tumble from the trees. Accompanied by this, the stadium lights begin to shine. Players take the field, cleats scrape the grass. “From Buchanan to Henry, Cottage Grove to Paris Landing, from Puryear to Springville, in Paris and all around, it’s Patriot football time in Henry County,” as my Grandfather would announce. No question that over half of the city is gathered to witness the event held at Patriot Stadium.
The ref blows his whistle; the first play is called. Heads collide as tackles are made. The crack of the helmets can be heard across the whole stadium.
But do these players realize that this could affect them for the rest of their lives?
Recently, statistics have shown that football is linked to a disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. This degenerative brain disease is found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. Now, this doesn’t necessarily pertain only to concussions. Rather, it’s people who’ve experienced multiple head impacts. So, it makes sense that a lot of football players develop CTE- as this occurs while making tackles. In fact, a recent study of former football players’ brains from the Journal of American Medical Association(JAMA) shows that 87% of all football players develop CTE. That ranges from the youth level all the way to the professional level. Within that study, for athletes that played in the NFL, that number rises to a whopping 99%. All but one out of 111 brains show signs of CTE.
So what exactly does this disease do to your brain? It kills brain cells and affects a person’s mood and behavior- causing impulse problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia. In many cases this has caused patients to commit suicide: Junior Seau, Ray Easterling, Andre Waters, and Dave Duerson just to name a few. And in an even more extreme case, Aaron Hernandez, a former NFL player who was only 27 at the time, murdered his friend and proceeded to commit suicide. He was also convicted of two other murders after his death. Why? His brain caused him to do so.
Another way CTE affects the brain is that it causes people to develop dementia and memory loss. Some patients have actually died from complications of dementia. Ralph Wenzel was one of these. Another man, Mike Webster, suffered from dementia and depression. Though this was not the cause of his death, his brain was said to have been through the equivalent of 25,000 car crashes over his 25 year football career.
A major problem with this disease is that it cannot be diagnosed until after death. This is because pathologists have to perform an autopsy on the brain to identify if CTE is present. So, the symptoms may arise in a patient, but we would not know the cause of those symptoms - if it was CTE - until after the patient has died.
Because several studies have recently been conducted and statistics have shown that CTE is highly linked to football, the question has arisen: Should youth football be banned? Is it too dangerous?
Because I thought this was an interesting topic, and since the sport plays a major role in the south- especially our town- I decided to pick my fellows classmates’ brains about the matter (pun intended).
I began by asking some introductory questions such as:
“Do you like football?”
All but one considered themselves a fan.
I then asked:
“What’s your opinion of the sport?”
I got some interesting responses. Some people said that it was “too violent,” or “scary.” while others had responses more in the direction of “it’s fun for the family,” “it’s more than just a sport, it brings people together,” and “it’s one of America’s most favored sports.”
I followed by asking,
“Could you imagine a world without it?”
I could tell this initially was difficult for people to answer. It seemed as if they hadn’t really thought about this before. However, a little over half of classmates said that they could not imagine a world without football. Some even expanded upon it by saying,
“So much of my social life revolves around football” and “almost every guy I know plays football.”
Next, I briefly explained to my interviewees what CTE is, and how it’s affected so many football players and will continue to do so. I presented some stats from recent studies as well. This led me to pose the big question:
“Should youth football be banned?”
Upon asking this, people looked puzzled. After pondering it for a little while, they’d give me an answer. And I got a wide variety of opinions- to say the least. Several actually gave an alternative to making football safer rather than banning it altogether.
“Football should not be banned, but playing time should be reduced.”
“Tackling needs to be banned, and we should definitely be more cautious. We need to develop safer ways to play and minimize the violence.”
“I think instead we need to enforce more safety rules.”
However, some believed that football should not be banned.
“Football should not be banned. It helps some kids express their feelings, and people should know what could happen to them if they choose to play.”
“I don’t think football would ever be banned. In today’s society you’d be considered a ‘wuss’. It’s a great idea, but people wouldn’t allow it.”
“If someone is going to grow up and play football, they need to be prepared. So youth football should not be banned.
I then asked if it was worth the risk to play football, and I found it interesting that every person said no. Though most said football shouldn’t be banned. The two seemed almost contradictory. I got answers such as:
“It isn’t worth it, there are other sports out there.”
“Definitely not, there are bigger and better things out there.”
I concluded by asking if people would allow their children to play the sport. This one seemed by far the most difficult to answer.
“Yes, it gives them team experience.”
“I wouldn’t hold them back, but I’d make sure they were aware of what could happen.”
“It depends on the program, and the precautions they take.”
“Probably just because a lot of people do it, and I’ve watched it become a lifestyle for my brother. And you also learn a lot from being on a team.
“I guess I would if he really wanted to, but it’s a hard decision.”
And among one of my favorites:
“I would just because my family is obsessed with it. But hopefully he just wouldn’t be good and play.”
In contrast, some agreed that they wouldn’t let their child play football. That it “isn’t worth the risk, and there are other sports- safer sports- to play.”
So all this to say- it appears the relationship between CTE and football has caused a bit of controversy. The way people believe it should be addressed- or not at all addressed, for the matter- that’s the issue. The question that remains undecided. Unanswered. Maybe it never will be answered. But I ask you that same question: Should youth football be banned?