On Regulating Football
Religion & Liberty Online

On Regulating Football

ESPN.com is reporting that Junior Seau, who committed suicide in May, just two years after retiring from the NFL, tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy(CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that has been associated with dementia, memory loss and depression found in many deceased NFL players. Naturally, as more data and deaths point to football’s brain injury risks, there will be more and more calls to action. A fundamental question in this discourse is this: “who has the moral responsibility and authority to regulate sport at any level?”

901016P JUNIOR SEAU CHARGERSI have friends with boys under seven-years-old who have decided that their sons will never play organized tackle football. The correlations with long-term brain damage is too great of a risk for my friends to expose their children to for the sake of playing the game. Every week it seems that we hear about an college or NFL player leaving the game because of a concussion. A few weeks ago, three NFL starting quarterbacks–Michael Vick of the Eagles, Alex Smith of the 49ers and Jay Cutler of the Bears– all suffered concussions. Because of the frequency of concussions in the NFL, some are raising questions about whether or not the game should still be played at all. The question for parents is simple, “is tackle football worth the risk?”

Even former NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw recently said, “If I had a son today . . . I would not let him play football.” According to a 2001-09 national study on athletes 19-and-under by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 25,376 football players suffered concussions–this is second only to bicycling (26,212). A concussion develops when some jolting of the head or body causes the brain to bruise by striking the skull. The CDC recommends that parents look for any of the following signs and symptoms of a concussion: appears dazed or stunned, is confused about assignment or position, forgets an instruction, is unsure of details (game, score, or opponent), moves clumsily, answers questions slowly, loses consciousness (even briefly), shows behavior or personality, and so on.

Overall, it seems that it may be time to reassess how football is played given the brain injury risks from the earliest levels of play through the NFL. Again, the important question is who has the authority, moral responsibility, and expertise to make prudent changes? Physicians, parents and coaches for children? The NCAA at the college level? The NFL? Politicians? Senators John McCain (R) and Harry Reid (D) have introduced legislation for the federal government to regulate boxing. Is this the beginning of a trend?

I do not have all the answers, and do not have the expertise to know what should be done about decreasing brain injuries in football, but if the call is for the federal government to set the rules of the game, like politicians are suggesting for boxing, the future of sport could be in serious trouble.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony B. Bradley, Ph.D., is distinguished research fellow at the Acton Institute and author of The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone on the Black Experience.