Is Football Without Brain Damage Possible?

Categories: Crime, Sports
Chris Brymer XFL.jpg
Chris Brymer, far left, pictured with XFL teammates
Last month we reported in a cover story on the case of Chris Brymer, a former star lineman at USC who has been charged with hate-crime assault in San Francisco. Interviews with medical experts and with Brymer's friends and relatives indicated he might suffer from a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma from football.

This disease, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, has been the subject of much press and public scrutiny since the fall of 2009, when The New Yorker published a report on the condition's prevalence among former football players. As a result, the National Football League has been trying to treat concussions more aggressively and set up stiffer penalties for head hits.

Yet in an interesting essay printed yesterday in The New York Times, former Denver Broncos player Nate Jackson asserts that these rules simply aren't going to do much.

On the contrary: Jackson suggests that repetitive head trauma is inseparable from modern football.

Noting that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has recently slapped his players with $175,000 in fines for illegal head hits, Jackson, a former wide receiver and tight end, states that such measures are ultimately futile, since using the head in hits is an essential part of high-level play:

The truth is that N.F.L. players have been using their heads as weapons since they first donned pads as children. It's the nature of the sport. Sure, coaches tell you to wrap up an opponent with your arms, to keep your head up, to see what you hit. But when a player is moving forward, his knees are bent and his body is leaning forward. The head leads no matter what. 

Some say players should block and tackle with the shoulder pads instead. Doing that means choosing a side, trying to hit an opponent with the left or right shoulder. That technique will get you cut by any professional team before you can begin to perfect it.

His conclusion: "The only way to prevent head injuries in football is no more football... Changing the rules enough to truly safeguard against head injuries would change the game beyond recognition. It wouldn't be football anymore."

If Jackson is right, that means more tragic stories similar to that of Brymer, along with the costs they bring for families, society, and the criminal-justice system.

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