In light of the recent findings linking repeated blows to the head in football with long-term brain damage, it looks like the NCAA is getting serious about protecting players from dangerous head-to-head hits. So much so that five players were ejected on college football’s opening weekend.
During the offseason, the NCAA’s Football Rules Committee changed the penalty for targeting a defenseless player from a fifteen-yard penalty to a fifteen-yard penalty plus ejection of the offending player. In the first weekend with this new rule, five players were ejected. Lorenzo Doss of Tulane, Chris McCain of Cal, Carlos Aviles of Indiana State, Deshazor Everett of Texas A&M and Terrance Mitchell of Oregon all got the boot on Saturday. See Mitchell’s illegal hit on a sliding Beaux Hebert below (courtesy of SB Nation).
The NCAA defines “targeting a defenseless player” as using the top of the helmet to initiate contact with the head or neck area of a player that cannot properly defend themselves from the attack—usually because they are facing away from the attacker and can’t see them coming, or because they’re wrapped up in some other activity (like sliding) that renders them vulnerable.
This rule change was motivated by a number of recent studies (like this one in the neurology journal Brain) that have shown severe long-term neurological problems among lifelong football players. In the past, the only real concern among players was avoiding concussions; but the new research shows that repeated sub-concussive blows over a decades-long career can result in a condition called chronic tau encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE results when a protein called tau, which is critical for healthy brain function, begins to clump together with other tau in the brain. When tau begins to aggregate, it cannot function as it should.
Tau provides structural support to brain cells—think of them as the bolts holding together a scaffolding. When they begin to clump together as a result of repeated sub-concussive blows, they are effectively robbed from the brain cell and prevented from doing their duty as a structural stabilizer. Imagine what would happen if you slowly started removing the bolts from the scaffolding: eventually, once you remove too many, the scaffolding collapses. So will a brain cell.
This is very similar to what happens in the brain during Alzheimer’s disease. So it’s not too far off to imagine these repeated sub-concussive blows to the head as “forcing” the brain into Alzheimer’s disease.
And these aren’t isolated events, either: In the Brain study linked above, 34 former NFL players were studied, and 31 of them had intermediate to severe CTE or other similar brain damage. That’s terrifying. Bob Costas, longtime NBC sports commentator, recently stated that “the way football is currently played in the NFL is fundamentally unsustainable”. Indeed; the NFL just paid out a $765 million settlement to former players with neurological issues.
I’m passionate about addressing this problem partly because I research how aggregation of tau affects the brain—and partly because I’m simply passionate about football. I want to see both the game and its players thrive in the lawsuit-laden 21st century. This puts me, like many others, in a tough position. I can accept that football is a violent and risky affair that will never be as safe as soccer or basketball. But I also can’t shrug it off and fully enjoy my favorite sport when I know the players are putting themselves at risk for serious brain damage down the road.
The NCAA rule change is long overdue, but it doesn’t go far enough. Violent head-to-head shots have no place in the game; they’re unnecessary and put players at undue risk. Putting strong penalties in place to deter these types of hits is an easy change that will minimally affect how the game is played. Ejecting players who consciously choose to target a defenseless player is a good start—it’s a very visible punishment that publicly highlights a player’s misconduct (and from the number of ejections in just Week 1, we can see just how widespread the problem of targeting is in college football). But such flagrant disregard for safety ought to warrant multiple-game suspensions or disqualification for the season.
There are only a few options if we truly want to increase player safety in football. Either remove the helmets and pads completely and turn football into a rugby variant, or seriously punish those who put themselves and their opponents at risk. Assuming we want to keep the pads on, kudos to the NCAA for taking a step in the right direction. The great game of football will only sustain itself into the future if it is safe. If players want to compromise that, get them out of the game.