On the Battlefield

At the end of my second semester English course at Baylor, my professor discussed the research paper assignment we would have to write. While the topic was open to our choosing, the assignment was full of due dates and requirements. I chose to compose an essay about the importance of football and the game’s safety. If you’re an avid reader of my blog, you would know that I’m extremely passionate about football so every aspect of the sport is of great priority in my book. This is the final paper I wrote and I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.


Former Vanderbilt running back Brad Gaines played a life-changing game against Ole Miss on October 28, 1989. In an ‘easy win’ game, there was a play that decided the fate of an opposing teammate. On third and goal, Gaines’ quarterback threw a pass to him closing in on the end zone. Once he caught the ball, Gaines felt a linebacker ram into him with great force, breaking up the pass. The defensive player- Chucky Mullins- wouldn’t get back up after the play and was airlifted in a helicopter ambulance back to Memphis. During that play, Mullins broke his spine and would never be able to move his limbs ever again. Gaines decided to visit the player in the hospital after feeling immense guilt over the future of Mullins. When he arrived at the players’ room, Mullins told Gaines, “It’s not your fault,” (McEvers, Silverman and Sullivan). After becoming friends with Gaines, Mullins died in 1991. Gaines visits Mullins’ grave every year on Christmas and on the anniversary of that life-altering college football game. Football safety and its risks is important to all football players, their families, coaches, team owners, NFL administrators, and football fans because the sport is not only a form of entertainment, but also affects the health and wellbeing of the players.

Football is one of the most influential features of American culture because it combines the unification of strangers cheering on a common goal with learning how to rise from the ashes when life (or a massive lineman) knocks you down. Football has been a civilian-favorite pastime since the late 1800s. In “The First Concussion Crisis: Head Injury and Evidence in American Football”, Harvard University doctoral candidate Emily A. Harrison wrote, “Football was one among many team games that emerged…following the Civil War. Explanations for the new appeal of recreational sports…have ranged widely, from a restless American spirit’s need for a new outlet once the frontier was lost, to a compulsion to simulate wars looming on past or future horizons,” (824). Football was established as an alternative way to experience the feeling of the battlefield once the war was over. When the war ended, the excitement of the battlefield left a mark on the lives of young Americans. Over time, the game has developed into a form of brutal hand-to-hand combat, which allows players to assault one another with the sheer force of their bodies. The idea of patriotism associated with football has increased immensely throughout the years as fans began to think of themselves as a part of the team, and the winning players as American heroes. Whereas the first football players played the sport for a small audience, state champion-winning high schoolers are touted as community giants and college athletes are thrust into the national spotlight. Nowadays, football fans are not only sitting in the stands, but also are having a relationship with the players they cheer for because of social media. Connecting with a favorite athlete or coach is as simple as pressing the ‘follow’ button on Twitter, while others go the extra mile and send players personalized gifts or letters representing their devotion to the individual. Friendships with fellow fans are also prevalent as rooting for a common goal draws people together. Although non-sports fans think of football as a glorified game of fetch between meaty men, the ‘die-hards’ will argue otherwise. Sitting next to someone who is cheering for the same team as you makes it easy to become instant friends. Football games, similar to concerts, allows people to find the common ground between one another: we might be in different walks of life, but we all want to believe in something. Whether it be in a religion, a political ideology, or a person, football gives sports fans the belief that anything is possible and with hard work, one can achieve the unimaginable. Football also provides viewers with the notion that it’s possible to get back up even when you think you can’t. Quarterbacks are the main football players in danger of injury during every game. To a defensive player, getting a sack or tackle is the best feeling in the whole world and for this reason, quarterbacks must do whatever they can in order to avoid getting hit. Sometimes, they’re protected by their offensive linemen, and other times, they’re knocked down. While the crowd cheers for the defensive player who made the hit, it can seem like the whole world is against the quarterback. However, he must get back up to prepare for the next play. When quarterbacks rise from the ashes even if the whole stadium looks as if they are conspiring against them, fans are inspired to get back up in life as well. 

Youth football is important for players to practice their skills at a young age and the addition of baseline concussion testing and tailored rules will make the game safer because parents can ensure that their kids are healthy enough to play. In Ahead of the Game: The Parents’ Guide to Youth Sports Concussion, brain injury educators Rosemarie Scolaro Moser and Bill Pascrell Jr. explain, “This kind of neurocognitive testing is particularly useful because it can identify lingering cognitive symptoms. Because we know that allowing a young athlete to return to sports too soon puts him or her at risk of developing post-concussion syndrome,…baseline testing can offer a certain added measure of safety,” (1). When parents of young athletes want to protect them from body or brain injuries, baseline testing is an important resource to take advantage of. Before researching for this essay, I had never heard of baseline testing. It seems like such a simple way for parents to reassure themselves that their children are safe as they begin to play contact sports. The way baseline testing works is that parents take their kids to a neuropsychologist who, when running tests on the brain, can determine if the child is at a high risk of obtaining a concussion or other mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI). It’s important for parents to allow their children to play sports in order to boost their leadership skills and to participate in a social activity, but the health and wellbeing of the child always comes first. Moser and Pascrell provide parents with an alternative way to make sure that their kids are safe and having fun at the same time. In “Youth Sports & Public Health: Framing Risks of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury in American Football and Ice Hockey”, professors Kathleen E. Bachynski and Daniel S. Goldberg note that children playing sports often don’t realize the dangers they are subjecting their bodies to. This observation relates to Moser and Pascrell’s book because all four authors state that children are at a high risk of mTBI whenever they thrust themselves into a contact sport, and the combination of brain testing with rules tailored to their age groups will make the game safer for youth. Whereas adult men playing football can take the hard tackle or hit, youth football leagues must change the game’s rules to fit the children’s capabilities and size. Parents, youth football coaches, and league administrators must enforce having children tested for brain injury risks and also make sure that the rules of the sport are appropriate for a child’s game.

College football and the NFL are extremely popular in America, but they’re considered as some of the most dangerous leagues to play in because players are constantly putting their bodies in danger every week. In “A Stopping Rule for Scholastic American Football?” assistant clinical professor of biostatistics in the Yale School of Public Health Michael Wininger describes, “Of the injuries that are recorded by the NCCSIR, (The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research) American football accounted for 62% and 58% of high school and college injuries- making it by far the most catastrophically injurious scholastic sport both by volume and by person-years,” (30). Although football has a series of set rules that players must follow, serious injuries are still prevalent in the non-professional games. This statistic doesn’t surprise me because I’ve seen my fair share of players carted off the field during a game. Ambulance sirens break the stadium silence as fans and parents watch limp bodies lifted onto gurneys and athletic trainers rush to an athlete lying on the turf, unable to get back up. While many parents would prevent their children from playing the game after witnessing such an event, Wininger offers a possible solution to the massive amounts of injury in the high school and college levels: a stopping rule. The new rule would require teams in the trenches of defeat to stop playing the game. Some might see this rule as waving a white flag or simply forfeiting the game, but it would only be put into action if a team is too battered or is facing such a deficit that the players have no chance of coming back to win the game. Although this rule would be extremely difficult to implement in the college level, it’s one step closer to achieving a game that’s not only exciting, but also safe.

Severe brain injuries are often the first danger that people think of in relation to football because constant rough tackles and hits to the helmet lead to concussions and other neurocognitive and neurodegenerative diseases. In “Epidemiology of Neurodegeneration in American-Style Professional Football Players”, employee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Everett J. Lehman wrote,  “The first study [of 2,552 retired players] noted that traumatic brain injury has been identified as a potential risk factor for neurodegenerative dementing disorders such as mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease,” (1). Brain injuries are becoming a growing concern for current and former football players as the effects of the contact sport can result in deteriorating brain function. Although the NFL and college leagues have implemented rules to make the game safer, players consistently grow in size and strength. With athletes weighing an upward of 300 pounds tackling and shoving each other, it’s no surprise that the amount of former athletes with head trauma is increasing over time. While playing football in front of a crowd brings fame and glory, the aftermath of the game matters just as much as the career. Suffering from multiple concussions from pee-wee football to the NFL can lead to brain problems that are incurable. Lehman offered former New York Giants running back Frank Gifford as an example of how blows to the head can affect athletes for the rest of their lives. Gifford retired before the 1961 football season after he suffered from a severe concussion. Although not discussed in this journal article, Gifford passed away in 2015 because of complications from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a neurodegenerative disease, which has affected many prominent football players. 

Cervical spine injuries are prominent risks in American football because if a hit goes the wrong way, a player can become paralyzed and his brain may also be affected. In the “Cervical Spine Injuries in American Football”, medical professionals at The Rothman Institute, Jefferson Medical College and Hospital São João-Porto Medical School, Jeffrey A. Rihn among others explained, “Although quite rare, catastrophic neurological injury is a devastating entity referring to permanent neurological injury or death,” (697). Spine injuries not only affect players’ bodies, but also their brains. This section of the journal article relates to neurodegeneration of the brain as well. Similar to the snowball or domino effect, when a player suffers a spine injury, his brain might also be affected, which can lead to concussions or other brain diseases. Most onlookers think of paralyzation as the only outcome of a cervical spine injury. When a player goes down on the field after a powerful hit and can’t move, the threat of a stunned or incapacitated body is prevalent to fans, teammates, and coaches. In order to reduce the risk of traumatic spine and brain injuries, the professional and college leagues have eliminated the use of ‘targeting’ and any form of tackle or hit using an opponent’s head as the original form of contact. While these rule changes have helped trim the amount of damaging and sometimes deadly injuries, cervical spine damage is still a dominant hazard in the American football organization.

After football players retire, many suffer from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which changes the direction of their lives forever because the brain injury leads to personality disorders and even death. In journal article “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in a National Football League Player: Case Report and Emerging Medicolegal Practice Questions”, Dr. Bennet I. Omalu among other medical professionals wrote, “CTE is a syndrome of chronic progressive cognitive and neuropsychiatric symptoms or dementia manifesting with contemporaneous, multi-domain impairment of intellectual functioning including language, visuospatial skills, personality, cognition, emotion, and mood disorders,” (44). As a passionate fan of the game, it’s hard accepting the fact that this disorder is real and that it affects former football players. The difficult part of coping with the discovery of CTE is how the diseases not only affects one’s mental state but also often leads to suicide and death later on in life. In the journal article, the authors discuss that CTE is a difficult disease to diagnose because brain testing can only be done after a player dies. After medical professionals test the brain post mortem, they can then determine whether or not the player in question suffered from the brain defect. In the case of the player examined in the article, he played football throughout high school, college, and nearly a decade in the NFL. The player endured dozens of concussions by taking countless hits and tackles over the course of his football career. He was always an outgoing person both on and off the field, but the concussions and brain injuries lead to a personality shift. The player became extremely forgetful, depressed and avoided all forms of social interaction. After a while, paranoia set in and he eventually committed suicide barely a decade after quitting football. This CTE case is deja vu among former players who suffered from consistent brain damage. All of the cases sound the same: a football player starts off healthy and happy, plays the game throughout his life, deals with continual brain damage and suddenly isn’t the same person anymore. The unfortunate part of these CTE cases is when a former pro ends his own life. Former NFL linebacker Tiaina Baul “Junior” Seau was a legendary player who dedicated 20 years of his life to the league. Similar to the case study previously mentioned, Seau suffered from CTE and took his life two years after retiring. Because most fans only see football as a form of entertainment, we sometimes forget that the game takes a physical and mental toll on players. 

The NFL and other football organizations are taking steps to increase the safety of the players because hard helmets and game rules in the past have proved inefficient in the long run. 

In “New and Improved Safety Measures for America’s NFL Stars”, author, editor and publisher Mark Venables wrote, “Riddell’s [NFL helmet supplier] Head-Impact Telemetry System (HITS)…provides coaches and medical staff with valuable information that can be used to identify potentially dangerous head impacts,” (85). The professional league has ultimately realized their forms of player protection aren’t working. Riddell’s helmet updates are impressive and hopefully the new head armor will safeguard players to prevent brain injury. While rule changes can only do so much, the technology lining the Riddell helmets will provide coaches and athletic trainers with substantial information about the impact players heads are taking after every snap of the ball. Over time, the hope is that the helmets and others like them will let football coaches know when players are suffering from too much damage and need medical attention. A rule that the NFL and the college football league have enforced is ‘targeting’, which has two meanings: players are not allowed to initiate blunt contact using their helmets and they’re also not allowed to use helmet to helmet contact against a defenseless player. If officials discover that a player targeted another, he will immediately be ejected from the game. Although sometimes it’s difficult to accurately determine whether a player meant to inflict damage on another, football officials know that it’s better to be safe than sorry. This rule implementation and advances in helmet technology will ultimately help the sport transform into one that is both exciting to watch and safe for the football players themselves. Ultimately, using the knowledge of the football coach is the only way to ensure that players are safe and healthy. In “The Football Coach and Football Safety” in the book Safety in American Football, author Richard P. Borkowski wrote, “The single most important key to football safety has been and will always be, the coach,” (165). While parents can prevent their kids from playing football and players can determine if they want to pursue the sport, the coach is the only one who can decide whether to remove a player from the game in order to keep them safe. 

Although it can be argued that football is dangerous enough to be eliminated altogether, it must remain available for viewing and playing because the sport itself isn’t the problem. In Ahead of the Game: The Parents’ Guide to Youth Sports Concussion, brain injury educators Rosemarie Scolaro Moser and Bill Pascrell Jr. said, “Despite all the dangers associated with mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI), concussions are not something we can fully prevent. Even if you were to forbid your child to play sports, kids are not immune to falling off a bike…or the risk of injury in more serious, spontaneous events,” (1). With all of the protection and prevention in the world, it’s still impossible for children and adults to remain safe forever. Understandably, parents want to protect their kids from any form of danger, but in the end, preventing children from playing sports isn’t the answer. The game of football should not be abolished. While there are many risks related to the game such as brain injuries, CTE, and cervical spine damage, football does more good than harm. Football players instantly find themselves a sense of camaraderie within their teammates. The game teaches men to become team players and to focus on what’s best for everyone, not just themselves. The companionship associated with an organized team sport can help players with their leadership skills. When the athletes disagree over a play or a route, having thoughtful authority can help solve the problem. For many football players, the game has given them self worth and the chance to create a better life for themselves and their families. Some of the best football players have come from rough neighborhoods and disadvantaged households where an extraordinary future doesn’t always exist. Former Baylor football wide receiver Corey Coleman grew up in the Highland Hills neighborhood in Oak Cliff where a community of gang violence, drugs and prostitution were prevalent. Rather than becoming another statistic of growing up in poverty, Coleman was lucky enough to find a mentor in former Baylor Bear and NFL cornerback Ray Crockett, who showed Coleman a world outside of one filled with violence and desperation. Because of his natural talents, Baylor offered Coleman a spot where he thrived and became the school’s all-time leading scorer. After finishing his college football career with the most touchdowns in the nation, Coleman will likely be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft- showing his family and the entire nation that football changes lives. The only way for football to truly become safe for its participants is for coaches, owners, parents and players to educate themselves of the risks and how to prevent them. 

While football is an exciting pastime, rule changes and uniform updates must be implemented because the aftermath of the game alters players’ lives forever. The football process begins for players at a young age as they work to become the next stars in the NFL. Unfortunately, playing a contact sport throughout one’s life can lead to spine and brain injuries such as CTE. In order to make the game safer, the NFL and other organizations are incorporating new rules and helmet technology. At the end of Chuck Gaines’ interview, he said, “I know that it’s not the game’s fault. I know that. And I know that there are going to be injuries. But when you love the game, you accept that. You accept that there could be consequences like this,” (McEvers, Silverman and Sullivan). Although the consequences from playing football are dangerous, the game ultimately represents American culture and benefits both its fans and the players on the battlefield.


Works Cited

Bachynski, Kathleen E., and Daniel S Goldberg. “Youth Sports & Public Health: Framing Risks of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury in American Football and Ice Hockey” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 42.3 (2014): 323-333. Web. 8 April. 2016.

Borkowski, R. P., “The Football Coach and Football Safety,” Safety in American Football, Ed. Earl F. Hoerner. Pennsylvania: American Society for Testing and Materials, 1996. 167-171. ASTM Compass. Web. 8 April. 2016.

Harrison, Emily A. “The First Concussion Crisis: Head Injury and Evidence in Early American Football.” American Journal of Public Health 104.5 (2014): 822-833. Web. 10 April. 2016.

Lehman, Everett J. “Epidemiology of Neurodegeneration in American-Style Professional Football Players.” Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy 5.4 (2013): 1-8. Web. 8 April. 2016.

McEvers, Kelly, Silverman, Lauren, and Sullivan, Becky. “Deaths Persist in Youth and Student Football Despite Safety Efforts.” National Public Radio. 25 Nov. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Moser, Rosemarie Scolaro, and Pascrell Jr., Bill. Ahead of the Game: The Parents’ Guide to Youth Sports Concussion. Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2012. Print.

Omalu, Bennet I., Hamilton, Ronald L., Kamboh, M. Ilyas, DeKosky, Steven T., and Bailes, Julian. “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in a National Football League Player: Case Report and Emerging Medicolegal Practice Questions.” Journal of Forensic Nursing 6.1 (2010): 40-46. Web. 10 April. 2016.

Rihn, Jeffrey A., et al. “Cervical Spine Injuries in American Football.” Sports Medicine, 39.9 (2009): 697-708. Web.

Venables, Mark. “New and Improved Safety Measures for America’s NFL Stars.” Engineering and Technology Magazine, February 2013, 84-85.

Michael Wininger. “A Stopping Rule for Scholastic American Football?” Significance 12.6 (December 10, 2015): 30-33.