Super Bowl: Is 'Safe Football' a Bogus Concept?

Posted by Kerrie Denner

Hi. I am Art Caplan from the New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center, the Division of Medical Ethics. I am a big football fan. I played football. I watch football. I am unfortunately a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, so I am rarely rewarded for my partisanship and support.

I have been concerned lately about the safety issues that keep coming up with respect to football at all levels -- high school, college, and professional football. Even little kids playing in Pop Warner leagues. We keep hearing about issues around concussions, and we know that it is a problem of growing concern, as is damage to joints, knees, and hips. We see all kinds of contusions and injuries that take place in football players. It is a violent sport, and many parents are asking physicians whether their children should play. How should physicians decide what to say about participation in contact sports such as football? What stance should we take?

The NFL is aware of these concerns and is frightened about the epidemic of concussions that they have seen at the professional level week after week on the televised games. We see the mayhem that is going on out there and the players who are being sent to the bench out of concern for concussion or because of actual concussions. They worry about what this is doing to the sport, particularly with young people. Are parents going to let their kids play? Are we going to see the spigot of money that has been behind the NFL dry up because there are so many injuries, and because parents are rightly concerned and don't want their kids getting hurt playing the game? If you don't play the game, it's less likely that you're going to have fans of the game.

The NFL has taken some actions. They have a campaign going on now, the "Play Safe" football campaign. You may have seen this. It's advertised in a lot of the commercials during football games. The basic idea is to teach coaches how to teach kids to tackle properly and to not use their heads as battering rams and so on. The suggestion is that if you play safe, you are going to be able to avoid injury.

This is morally of concern to me because I don't think it is true. Having played the game and watched the game, I find myself thinking that football is disorganized mayhem. The notion that you are always going to be able to position yourself safely and make a controlled tackle in a game where bodies are flying around, when you don't really know what is going on, doesn't make sense. You are trying to stop an opponent from many different angles. People are rolling into you accidentally and you collide with your own teammates, sometimes head-to-head, by accident. I wonder whether there really is such a thing as playing safe football.

I mention this because I think more physicians are going to be asked this very question: Is football something that, with proper coaching and proper training, one could say that it could be played safely? It is certainly good to try to get kids not to take big risks, but I believe that the notion of playing football "safely" just doesn't make sense. It is too much a game of controlled mayhem. It is risky in terms of the very point of the game, which is to tackle, bring down the opponent, and get your opponent out of the way by using all kinds of moves -- the kinds of moves that thrill us: not just the big hits, but the dexterous line plays and the fascinating battle that goes on, so to speak, between blockers and attackers -- and some of that is going to involve risk.

My advice, when asked by parents, is that one has to be honest. One has to say that there are risks for concussion, and that children shouldn't start playing tackle football under the age of 12 years. It is just too risky and dangerous at that level. We should look for coaches who are properly trained in trying to encourage safer play, but I don't think that it is possible to take the risk out of football. Doctors are going to have to say that. Parents are going to have to hear it and understand it. Older athletes in college and the pros are going to have to make their decisions accordingly. We shouldn't buy the image that the NFL and other leagues, such as hockey, are trying to sell -- that it's possible to play rough, violent contact sports in a way that avoids all risks and is safe.

I'm Art Caplan at the NYU Langone Medical Center. Thanks for watching.

Source: Medscape


Accessed 02/03/2014

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