I can remember watching football as young as 7 or 8 years of age because it was where we could find our father on Sundays. My dad would be so engrossed in the games that we could stand behind him and say “Dad, dad, dad, dad, dad, dad” and not get a response. However, if you said something “Wow, that was a good catch”, he would turn around, look at you, and say something like “Yes, it was”. So we learned very early on that if we wanted our father’s attention it was best to join him in his world and a lot of his world revolved around sports.
Living in the southern part of New Jersey, I found myself surrounded by Philadelphia Eagles fans, although my father was/is a die-hard New York fan. I quickly joined the ranks of Eagles fans and it was something that my husband and I had in common. By 1990, I had joined his Fantasy Football team and my partner and I were the only women in the league. My interest and knowledge of the sport became a source of pride for me. That all changed two years ago when I saw the movie Concussion. If you are a huge football fan, you may want to stop reading now.
In this movie, Will Smith plays the forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu that discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) which is a neurodegenerative brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s disease that arises from repeated head trauma. He embarks on a mission to raise public awareness about the dangers of football-related head trauma, even with the players wearing helmets and a professional football league rule against helmet-to-helmet contact. Subsequent research of deceased former high school, college, and professional football players showed that 177 out of 202 players were diagnosed with CTE, with the disease being diagnosed in 110 out of 111 (or 99%!) of the former NFL football players. This data hurt my mind and body!
CTE can only be diagnosed via autopsy so identifying the signs and symptoms much earlier is vital. This knowledge made me think about our little ones and their beautiful developing brains. Then I came across even more recent research looking at the mental and behavioral challenges experienced in adulthood that might be tied back to playing tackle football before the age of twelve. Researchers questioned 214 men whose only organized sport participation growing up was football. The results reflect that those who started playing tackle football before the age of twelve were 33% more likely to show signs of depression and about 28% more likely to have behavioral problems in adulthood. Lead author of this research Dr. Michael Alosco writes “Research on the effects of football on the brain is now at a point where it cannot be ignored.”
Well, I for one no longer am ignoring the data. After more than 40 years of being a dedicated fan, I have stopped watching football this year. Instead I have joined the ranks of mental health professionals who work to help relieve the suffering that comes from the symptoms of depression and behavioral challenges and raise the awareness and collective consciousness around the underlying causes of such suffering. So this Thanksgiving, you will not find me in front of the TV watching a sport that appears to value the almighty buck more than the mind-body health of the players. I still greatly value team sports and supporting the community it creates and I hope that this research will encourage new ways of playing that dramatically reduce or eliminate the inherent risk of concussions. Until then, I am learning to enjoy the time I have freed up on my Sundays by connecting with like-minded souls.
If you would like to read more about this research, below are two links. Click on the first link to read about the research based upon the autopsies. Click on the second link to read about the research on playing tackle football before the age of twelve.