My 11-year-old godson is a tough kid. He plays big for his size (by comparison, my just-turned nine-year-old daughter is taller) and has shown enough ability to have his family — and me — believing he has a real future in sports. But that sport won't be football. After sustaining two concussions, his parents made the decision to pull him out of football despite his love of the game, and his relative success at an early age.
Their actions are becoming increasingly common in youth football. Pop Warner numbers have declined more than 10 percent over the past three years, with league officials acknowledging parental concern over head injuries as the primary reason. High school football participation, as I noted in "Numbers Crunch" (December 2014, p. 40), had been steadily declining since 2008 before rebounding a bit in 2013.
While each level takes its own path in terms of how it approaches head injuries, all roads lead to the NFL. Despite assurances from the league that the sport is the safest it's ever been, actions by its players suggest otherwise. For example, second-year San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired this year over head-injury fears, and former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Sidney Rice — the recipient of numerous concussions during his career — retired recently at the ripe old age of 27.
As a Chicago Bears fan, I have to reference a pair of former Bears safeties here. When Dave Duerson committed suicide, he shot himself in the chest so doctors could study the damage done to his brain when he played. On the other hand, Chris Conte, after sustaining two concussions in 2014, said he'd rather die 10 to 15 years earlier than not play football.
In March, University of Michigan center Jack Miller announced he would not return for his senior year, citing concussion fears as part of the reason. This is the second high-profile concussion-related issue impacting the Wolverines in less than a year. Last season, then coach Brady Hoke sent his quarterback, Shane Morris, who had appeared to suffer a concussion moments earlier, back into a game they were losing 30-7.
That same season, two other quarterbacks — the University of Texas' David Ash and the University of Connecticut's Casey Cochran — both walked away from football due to concussions. Perhaps both read comments from the guy considered one of the toughest quarterbacks in NFL history, Brett Favre, who admitted he couldn't remember his daughter playing youth soccer one summer due to head injuries he sustained. He didn't forget one game. He couldn't remember her entire season.
The term "fear-mongering" has been thrown around by some in the media and athletics industry in regard to the severity of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football. Particularly, one media member stated that the average NFL player lives longer than the Average Joe, and that cancer and heart problems are lower among NFL players. Recently, Pittsburgh Steelers team neurosurgeon Joseph Maroon referred to CTE as a "rare phenomenon" despite Boston University's CTE Center finding 76 of the 79 deceased NFL players it examined to have CTE. Maroon also noted that riding a bike is more dangerous than playing youth football.
The reality is that there have been many positive steps taken recently to better protect players, including improved equipment, coaching and injury protocols, but there's no denying that these are scary times for football at all levels. Players are no longer just shaking off an injury and getting back on the field. Some are now shaking off the sport and getting off the field — be it professional athletes or my 11-year-old godson.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Can Football Overcome Head Injury Fears?"