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Prevention Institute E-alert: April 14th, 2015

Defining Manhood by Risk-Taking, Domination, and Control is Misguided 

When Chris Borland, the San Francisco 49ers star linebacker, announced he was leaving the field to avoid the risk of brain damage, public reaction was sharply divided. While some praised his decision to value his long-term health over the short-term fame and riches of an NFL career, others derided Borland’s decision as “wimping out.” This criticism reflects football’s reputation as a key institution defining what it means to be a man: to engage in behavior marked by risk-taking, domination, and control.

In an Op-Ed published in several Bay Area newspapers, we argue that football fails to adequately protect player safety and promotes dangerous ideas about manhood. The authors—PI’s Larry Cohen and Linda Degutis, former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC, who worked to make the sport safer—argue Borland’s decision sets a good example for children—particularly children who don’t have economic resources and may view football as one of the only ways to access opportunity:

“It should not be up to individual players to create a safe environment or to advocate for their own health and safety. We must take steps early to change the circumstances in which injuries occur—including reconsidering how sports are played and the norms they promote.”

The headline of the Op-Ed, “Now is the Time to Make Football a Safer Sport,” was written by the Bay Area News Group, not the authors. We felt this title mischaracterized the piece and distracted from our primary messages: Football is dangerous, especially to kids, and taking risks with one’s health shouldn’t be equated with manliness.

The concussion risk of football is just one of numerous risks that many low-income young men, especially young men of color, are forced to accept, given limited avenues to employment and income.  When families balance a potential health risk with limited options and current community risks, they make a rational choice.  It is critical that we ensure all young people have equal access to employment and income, which includes  paying special attention to reversing the historical lack of options for young people of color.

According to several studies published in 2013 by researchers at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, more than 25,000 football players from 8 to 19 years old are taken to emergency departments for head injuries every year; and players as young as age 7 receive hits to the head comparable to those sustained by high school and adult players. In one study, 19 seven-and-eight-year-old boys were found to have received 3,061 hits to the head over a two-year span; in another, three teams of players from ages 9 to 12 took 12,000 hits in a single season—an average of 240 hits per player.

When the long-term mental and physical health of our children is at stake, we should avoid succumbing to the convenient, misguided refrain that “injuries are accidents.” In fact, youth-football-related head injuries are both predictable and preventable. When injuries are built into the way the game is played, we need to either change the game dramatically, or reconsider whether kids should be playing it at all.

The threat of permanent, irreversible injury, especially to the brain, by NFL players is even more pronounced. In documents related to its $765 million settlement of concussion lawsuits last year, the NFL itself estimated that 28 percent of former players will develop serious brain conditions—double the rate of the general population. Researchers at Boston University have found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, loss of impulse control, and dementia), in 59 out of 62 former professional football players when their brains were analyzed after their deaths. And a 2012 study found that the risk of death from Alzheimer's and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) was four times higher among NFL players than the general population.

Thanks to players like Borland who are willing to speak out and lead by example, many parents are taking matters into their own hands. Pop Warner, the nation's largest youth football program, suffered a 9.5 percent drop in participation between 2010 and 2012—the largest two-year decline since the organization began keeping statistics decades ago. We are encouraged by these numbers and hope to see this trend continue.

Read the Op-Ed at the Contra Costa Times, one of the Bay Area News Group newspapers that published the piece.

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