New York City prides itself on the competitive football programs in the city’s high schools. Reducing full-contact practices can reduce head injuries, and maybe they can avoid the kind of early onset dementia and even emotional illnesses that some players deal with later on.
Last week’s murder-suicide involving Kansas City Chiefs’ Javon Belcher and his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins, may shed light on an ongoing problem in football – at all levels.
There have been four National Football League (NFL) players, two retired and two active, who took their own lives in the last year. This does not mean that the sport is to blame, but there is little doubt that head injuries are caused by head-to-head hits that take place in the sport, and head injuries can bring emotional problems.
The problem that college and NFL football has is that emotional or mental illness is difficult to address in a sport like football. It’s a form of weakness to seek help to many guys that play football. Add to that the fact that many players are not from a place in society where one seeks out mental and emotional help.
Even with progress made in recent decades, not many middle and lower-middle class people seek out (or can afford to seek out) psychological help. A third part of this equation is that many of these players are tough and physical, and problems tend to get solved physically instead of intellectually.
None of this applies to all, or even most, football players. This is a great sport. But there is a better way to avoid head injuries in football. The NFL has a union to look out for its players, but college and high school players have no union.
Maybe tragic players like Javon Belcher and Junior Seau were going to go off the rails anyway, but there is nothing in our sports culture that tells these guys to at least seek out help before they opt for a physical solution. And this makes little sense, since sports psychologists have not only helped athletes personally, but they have even turned careers around.
A few weeks ago, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith experienced a concussion that caused him to miss his next start. Replacement quarterback Colin Kaepernick filled in brilliantly. Now, Smith sits on the bench, despite having a very good season and leading his team to a 7-2 record. What does this mean?
Players already keep information about these kinds of injuries secret, now they are going to play their cards even closer to the vest for fear of being replaced.
The NFL deals with this its own way, but at the high school and college level, this is a matter of education. If players are experiencing head-to-head hits in college and high school, there is a way that schools can and should address this.
No longer are the people who sound the alarms to this issue those who do not like sports. Former Baltimore Colts defensive back Bruce Laird even said that he would hesitate to have his kids play football today if he were a young parent. This is a guy that loves the sport and still makes his living doing analysis.
Football at the lower levels needs some tightening up. Dementia and emotional distress in young men is simply not worth it.