This season the NFL has become more explicit in warning players about the "cognitive risks" associated with football, hanging posters in locker rooms detailing the long-term effects — including mental illness and early-onset dementia — of the concussions and brain injuries that new findings suggest are commonplace at all levels of the violent sport. But are there ways to make football safer in the first place? (Watch a CNN report about new, stronger helmets.) Here are five ideas, taken from a New York Times-sponsored debate on the topic and commentator reactions to it:
1. Limit the hits before players go pro
The best way to make the sport as a whole safer is to scale back the hitting in youth football, says Christopher Nowinski, a former Harvard player and president of the Sports Legacy Institute. An average NFL career lasts just three seasons, but that generally follows at least a decade of "youth, high school and college" football — and teenagers' still-developing brains are "far more vulnerable to the metabolic and chemical changes of concussion" than adults'. We should institute "hit counts" in youth programs, similar to the "pitch counts" used in youth baseball programs.
2. Players need to be better about reporting injuries
We don't have to "drastically" alter the nature of the game, says former NFL player Sean Morey. But players and coaches must become more vigilant and dutiful about reporting head injuries and taking enough time to recover from them. "When a concussion occurs, there is a period of vulnerability where further impacts can kill injured brain cells that would have otherwise recovered. Proper diagnosis and management is the key to recovery," says Morey.
3. Stop glorifying unnecessary violence
While new safety measures can be helpful, we have to think more deeply about the problem, says Roger I. Abrams, a law professor and author of Sports Justice: The Law and the Business of Sports. Football is "our gladiatorial pastime," satisfying society's thirst for violence at a terrible cost to many young men. Ultimately, research may show that the sport "is just too dangerous, even after all the ameliorating changes are made." In the meantime, we need to stop oohing and aahing over "vicious and gratuitous" hits.
4. Make practices safer
Rather than "remove elements of the game that are central to its appeal," let's just scale back the contact in practices, says Allen Sack, a business school professor and former Notre Dame football player. This is a "realistic approach," and research has shown that hits taken in practice are just as harmful as those taken in games — and far more plentiful.
5. Have more players on a team
"I've come to doubt whether" making football safer is really possible, says The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, but one stopgap option might be "expanding rosters and accepting that a player isn't supposed to start the whole game." Less time on the playing field translates to fewer hits and less jarring of players' brains. But when it comes to the long-term health effects of the game, "my sense is that we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg."
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