Football, concussions, and the future of the sport

We have all seen those mid-air collisions that result in two highly talented football players lying in crumpled masses on the ground after banging their heads together.

Every now and again, such collisions lead to at least one of the two players suffering a concussion. And what about headers? Are they equally problematic?

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A few years ago, football officials in the US decided to ban headers among youth players out of fears that repeated blows to the head could cause significant brain injury.

There have been numerous studies in the years since that both backup and refute the decision. And of course, there is the whole concussion thing in American Football.

The big question is whether or not football in Europe has a future if fears of concussion and degenerative brain disease are allowed to take hold.

We have already seen how such fears have devastated American Football across the pond. Could the same thing happen here? Absolutely.

Concussions in American Football

It wasn’t until about a decade ago that people in the US started questioning head injuries in what is arguably that country’s most popular sport.

But once the cat was out of the bag, it could not be put back in. Study after study has shown that American Football players suffer an inordinate number of concussions as a result of play.

Other studies have drawn a correlation between repeated head injuries and degenerative brain disease in those athletes.

As such, the NFL and just about every college football conference in America have instituted a concussion protocol. Most high schools also have similar protocols in place.

Taking a cautious approach toward concussions is obviously a good thing. In addition to the protocols, equipment manufacturers have been working with doctors and scientists to reduce the likelihood of brain injuries in the sport of American football. But there has been a decidedly negative impact on the sport as well.

Thanks to aggressive media coverage and a bit of social justice, youth participation in American football has fallen significantly. Moreover, the game is not what it used to be at either the professional or college levels.

Scoring is way up because physical contact is strictly monitored. What used to be a rough-and-tumble game for men looks more like flag football these days.

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Concussions in our football

Returning to Europe, we have our own perception problem with concussions. Perceptions are fuelled by studies like one conducted in Scotland and published in October 2019.

That study looked at football players born between 1900 and 1976 and compare them to as many as 23,000 other men from similar generations who did not play football.

The data revealed that the men who played football were up to five times more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Motor neuron disease was four times more likely in the football players while Parkinson’s was twice as likely.

Interestingly enough, the study has been met with some skepticism because it looked only at Scottish footballers.

Still, researchers are not quite sure that the degenerative brain diseases linked to football are necessarily the result of head-to-ball contact or concussions caused by other heads, flying elbows, and knees.

That brings us back to the subject of headers. Researchers at a loss to explain degenerative brain disease and a possible link to concussions have turned to headers as the culprit.

One study published in 2016 draws a correlation between heading the ball and immediate injury to the brain. That study suggested that headers could explain the higher rates of degenerative brain disease among footballers.

Another study published in 2019 draws the exact opposite conclusion. That study claims there is little anecdotal evidence or statistical data that conclusively links heading to brain injury.

That particular study looked at youth football players between the ages of 11 and 19. It also considered a range of meta-studies conducted throughout the US and Britain over the years.

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Conflicting results cause confusion

The concern here is that different studies show different results. Moreover, the conflicting results lead to confusion among parents with youth footballers.

Trying to make sense of it all is like shopping for sports first aid kits designed for football. There are so many options that you don’t know which way to turn.

Football enthusiasts in the UK have every reason to be concerned. Until we get some clarity, all of the speculation is only bound to generate fear in the minds of parents and youth football coaches.

That could mean the sport begins to suffer here just like American football is suffering in the US. That would be tragic indeed.

If headers and collisions do cause concussions that eventually lead to degenerative brain disease, we absolutely should look at ways to reduce the risks.

What we should not do is abandon football or water it down to such a degree that it is no longer a sport worth playing. There are ways to fix any and all legitimate problems without destroying the sport.

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