Football’s Safety Issues Hit Close to Home
December 15, 2013
It wasn’t just another headline in the newspaper or soberly delivered report on TV.
Chad Stover played high school football close to here, in the small, central Missouri town of Tipton. He’d turned 17 on November 8, just six days before he died without awakening from a hit he took near the end of a game on Halloween night – tragically underscoring an escalating debate over the safety of America’s favorite sport and whether, or how, it must evolve to survive.
At the same time, the popular junior was lying in a coma from a catastrophic brain injury; it was revealed that pro football Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Joe DeLamielleure and another NFL all-star, Leonard Marshall, have been diagnosed with signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The degenerative cognitive condition is commonly linked to head trauma. Three days after Stover’s passing, NFL great, Brett Favre, spoke of his “scary” memory issues on NBC’s Today Show.
If he had a son, Favre said in the interview, he’d hesitate to let him play the game because of the potential physical toll. President Obama had said much the same thing back in January.
The NFL recently settled a lawsuit brought by Dorsett, DeLamielleure, and more than 4,500 former players who charged the league with covering up a link between football and brain damage. While admitting no wrongdoing, the league agreed to pay $765 million.
That was in August. It hardly closed the issue.
Maybe you’re not a football or even a sports fan. Even so, given the sport’s and particularly the NFL’s prominence in today’s culture, the topic is hard to overlook. Participation in youth football is down, perhaps reflecting the concern expressed by Favre and Obama. There’s heightened attention to rules and playing technique in an attempt to make the sport safer. But at the college and pro levels, the ever-increasing size and speed of players – and their more violent collisions on the field – counters those efforts.
If you haven’t seen one or the other already, a recent book and related public television special are worth a look. Revolving around the work of two of sport’s journalism finest investigative reporters, brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth and its broadcast complement, League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, focus on the pro game but provoke thoughts about the sport as a whole.
It’s a time for thinking. Two days before Chad Stover’s life ended in a hospital in Columbia, an Arizona high school football player died in Phoenix after suffering a blow to the head during a playoff game. If autopsies confirm that both players died as a result of on-the-field injuries, it will raise the number of high school football fatalities this year to eight.
Excelsior Springs Branch