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Confronting concussions: Head injuries in football cause great concern

One aspect of the game of football that tends to grab everyone’s attention is the extremely brutal hit that is delivered by one player to another. The sheer power and force that is exhibited in a collision between players is incredible to witness. Yet, what often follows these brutal collisions is the chilling silence of a stadium with a player lying motionless on the field.

On Oct. 2 against the No. 3 Oregon Ducks, junior wide receiver Chris Owusu took a violent hit to the head. Although Owusu’s diagnosis remains unknown, his injury rocked the Stanford community and brought to light once again the concern over injuries resulting from football, namely brain and spinal cord injuries.

Football is regarded as an extremely physical sport, and with growing numbers of concussions comes the question of whether the violence inherent to the sport can be reduced. Youth around the country are picking up helmets and shoulder pads and taking to the fields to “rough the other guys up,” despite increasing information about the risk that the sport poses to the developing brain. Quite simply, the human brain cannot handle the continuous high impact that football entails. And while helmets properly support the head and prevent injuries like skull fractures, they do not protect the interior of the head at all.

Concussions occur when the head is violently forced in one direction and then is stopped or spun rapidly. As helmets clash, the cranium thrashes against the skull–the head inadvertently decelerates while the brain lurches forward. This unnatural shaking of the brain causes brain cells to become depolarized and simultaneously fire their neurotransmitters at once in an unhealthy cascade, severely threatening the brain’s receptors linked to learning and memory.

University of Kentucky spinal cord and brain injury researcher Dr. Jonathan Lifshitz has been researching a relatively new phenomenon called the fencing response. The fencing response is an involuntary movement in which a person extends his or her arms in the air immediately following a concussion. It is used as a clear indicator of a moderate brain injury.

“The fencing response was a fortuitous finding in both animal and man, which can be used to rapidly identify a head injury and guide immediate medical care,” Lifshitz said. “We are currently working on the long-term behavioral and pathological consequences.”

Recurring hits to the head can result in lifelong consequences, and the issue in football is becoming more and more concerning. The physiques of professional athletes are only making the game more dangerous, with linemen weighing in between 300 and 350 pounds. They launch themselves headfirst at their opponents, resulting in forceful helmet-to-helmet contact. Coaches and fans love the hard-hitting action of football, but the potential long-term harm to the players is becoming a vital and life-threatening issue.

One of the most severe diseases shaking the football community is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a progressive degenerative disease, typically found in individuals who have suffered multiple concussions and other forms of head injury. The disease, primarily associated with contact sports such as ice hockey, boxing, martial arts and football, embodies the long-term neurological consequences of repetitive blows to the head. The intense head trauma athletes experience is a result of the degeneration of brain tissue and the accumulation of tau protein. Symptoms, which can start months or even decades after the trauma to the brain, range from memory loss to aggression to depression.

Owen Thomas, a junior lineman at the University of Pennsylvania, hanged himself in his apartment last April. With no previous history of depression, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound football player shocked the UPenn community with his unexpected and aberrant emotional collapse. Upon examination of Thomas’ brain tissue, doctors at Boston University discovered early stages of CTE. Doctors insist that, while it may not be the sole cause of Thomas’ suicide, the severe trauma to his brain undoubtedly resulted from the numerous collisions he endured in his 12 years of football.

Many of football’s ruling powers have begun to realize that change is of the essence–that new rules, a new mentality and a new approach are needed to tackle this problem at the core of the football community. In light of the recurring incidences, the NFL recognized the gravity of concussions and has taken steps toward addressing the problem. As of December 2009, an NFL player who sustains a concussion or exhibits signs of a concussion cannot participate in a game or practice the same day of the injury.

Though unlikely to be enacted anytime soon, some propose the possibility of doing away with the three-point stance for linemen. If linemen were to start in an upright position with no hands on the ground, they would be forced to block with their arms and hands as opposed to their heads.

While important at the NFL level, the reform movement should also begin to trickle down to all levels of the game. It is imperative that coaches teach players the most basic fundamentals of proper tackling to reduce the chances of a serious head injury. Players should be reminded to keep their heads up and to see what they hit. Head injuries are happening at all levels of the game and are occurring in kids as young as nine.

The New York Times, which has reported extensively on this topic, quoted current Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth as saying, “Ninety-nine percent of the people who put on helmets don’t get the payback we do [as professionals], but they’re taking the same risks. [The warning is] probably more valuable to them than it is to a lot of us.”

The game of football holds such a high place in today’s culture that it is almost impossible to imagine the sport’s popularity being seriously threatened by a medical issue. But as people are becoming increasingly aware of the severity and long-term consequences that result from football collisions, the need to find corrective solutions to protect the health of its players is becoming the sport’s top priority.

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