Should anyone be playing American football?

The human midbrain
The human midbrain

News: The midbrain in humans controls “functions such as hearing and temperature regulation.” But, because of its location–in the middle of the brain–this area is “likely to sustain damage” when a person suffers a hit to their head.

A recent study that tracked football players (American football) at the University of Rochester in New York (NCAA Division III) found that though only 2 of the 38 subjects were judged to have received an actual concussion, more than 67% of the subjects “showed changes to the integrity of the white matter of their midbrains” from hits to the head that the players received during practices and games over 1 season.

“Researchers also found the same MRI signature of injury in the midbrain in a separate cohort [of subjects] with diagnosed concussions.”

What does this mean?

The research shows that it does not take an actual concussion for a football player to receive damage to their brain–damage similar to that of players who do receive actual concussions. “Normal” hits to the head sustained in practices and games can cause the same damage.

Should anyone be playing American football?

Learn more: Just one season of playing football–even without a concussion–can cause brain damage (Eva Frederick, Science, 7 August 2019).

Go to the source: A common neural signature of brain injury in concussion and subconcussion (Adnan A. Hirad, et al., Science Advances, 7 August 2019).


  1. Future of Tackle Football

    I grew up loving the sport (and played one year of tackle after being asked by the coaching staff at my high school), but don’t think it [football] has much of a future. Dropping participation and lawsuits at the lowest level will continue the trend of awareness for the general public. Ultimately this will lead insurance companies to drop sport coverage at the high school and college level. The NFL will survive the longest, but the quality of athlete it procures will slowly decay. The cultural fanaticism the sport has maintained over the past 80 years is about to be challenged/changed.

    It would seem that the 7% drop in football participation over the past ten years isn’t a big deal, but a closer look at the numbers suggests it might be. Football doesn’t have to hit true zero for the sport to evaporate or at least start to decline at an increasing rate. As the rate of players drops (people buying pads/helmets) and the expenses related to the pads/equipment increases (as demanded by new safety requirements), we are likely to see a huge inflationary period within the sport where it becomes unaffordable for small middle or high schools to even offer the sport. Analogous to falling dominos, once smaller schools start to drop, bigger schools will start to fall as well as they will not have teams to play, nor will they have the side of the majority supporting its inclusion in the school curriculum.

    Furthermore, the sport needs at least 11 players to even field a squad. For arguments sake, let’s assume that a team needs 22 (one for each position offense/defense) to be a viable “team.” If a high school averages a 50-man roster that leaves us with 28 players to be reduced before the sport hits its floor. Assuming it loses one player per year (1-3-5% / year) the sport of tackle football will not be played in 28 years, at least at the lower levels.

    This model excludes one potential catalyst to the collapse – a live test for the disease.

    Science’s silver bullet: If scientists develop a test for CTE in the living (expected to come in about 5 years) we might see football go away before 2030 at the lowest levels. No way a middle school or high school can ethically justify giving its students brain damage. I am under the impression that a governmental school is intended to educate students minds, first and foremost. As science advances one will hypothetically be able to say, “this athlete got brain damage during this calendar year on school grounds.” This cannot withstand the litmus test (at least for very long). As with anything where a lot of money is stake, politicians and pseudo-scientist will emerge to try to discredit and disavow what science is informing the public. We are already seeing that in California with the “Save Youth Football Campaign”.

    I foresee economic challenges related to football’s closure impacting many major Universities who have overspent and over allocated resources during the past couple decades. My alma mater, Clemson University, may be on the most adverse offenders. Sure, we are excelling at the sport, but we are relying on the sport to do most of our advertising, we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a sport that doesn’t look to have moral leg to stand on. Eventually the truth will bear out.

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