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Is Playing American Football at College Dangerous?

Is Playing American Football at College Dangerous? main image

It may be one of the most popular sports in America, but if you’re planning to play full-contact football at college, you might want to think again. Earlier this year, scientists have found a link between playing the sport and degenerative brain disease, with 90% of American footballers playing at college level diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in a new study.

Of the 53 college players tested, a staggering 48 had CTE, a rare disease that is a risk factor for memory loss and dementia. The study attributes this trend to the repeated blows on the head caused by the rough sport, which leaves players particularly vulnerable to concussion and brain trauma. The ratio was higher in the National Football League, where a staggering 110 of the 111 NFL players tested were found to have CTE.

While this might have you thinking it would be better if we stopped playing the sport altogether (or at least changed the rules), some players remain undeterred by the study. Kenny Young, linebacker for UCLA, said he accepts the risks that come with playing the sport: “You make the decision to play football, and you have to accept the good and bad with that.

“I play football and I play linebacker. I’m tackling or hitting somebody every single play. The only thing you can control is how you do it. Do you want to be the guy that knocks people out every single play for entertainment? Or are you that guy that cares about your longterm health?”

Oregon State coach Gary Andersen stressed coaches must stay alert during practices and games and encourage players to report head injuries. He said: “Our first year here, we had a young man that definitely had an issue on the field during a game. I ran out to the numbers and grabbed him. The official looked at me like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I was like, ‘We’ve got to get this kid out of the game.’ So, you can’t see everything as a coach, but when you see something like that, you’ve got to act’.”

Dr Ann McKee, a neuroscientist at Boston University, worked on the study and warned that other factors may also be in play, such as diet and the use of steroids, medication and alcohol. Regardless, it’s more than enough to make some people think twice about whether playing football is good for their health. On the other hand, the lure of lucrative professional contracts will be enough to keep the most talented players on the field, risking their health for a shot at glory.

So, if young athletes aren’t going to be put off playing, what can be done to protect them from brain damage? Despite claims to the contrary, there is no conclusive evidence that wearing a protective helmet does anything to stop CTE. While protective helmets are important and do much to protect the skull, they can’t stop the brain from hitting hard into the skull and suffering devastating impacts. Fortunately, while there is no miracle helmet yet, efforts are being made to improve the culture of the sport, encouraging athletes to self-report injuries. The NFL has focused on educating athletes about the risks, while also adding 42 new rules since 2002 which have largely been designed to make the sport safer. Nowadays, athletes with a concussion are no longer granted same day clearance, and a team of doctors is deployed to each game where they enforce a strict concussion protocol to diagnose and treat head injuries immediately as they occur.

This may not be enough, but it will go some way to tackling the most serious head injuries caused by American football. The question is: would you still want to play such a dangerous sport?

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Written by Mathilde Frot
I'm originally French but I grew up in Casablanca, Kuala Lumpur and Geneva. When I'm not writing for QS, you'll usually find me sipping espresso(s) with a good paperback.

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