NFL Won’t Admit That Bashing Your Head Constantly is Harmful

It seems like common sense: if you’re hit repeatedly in the head at high velocity, you’re likely to sustain some brain trauma, and that might cause health problems down the line. Yet the National Football League doesn’t agree.

Despite a growing mound of evidence suggesting that professional football comes with some significant health risks, the NFL insists that there’s nothing wrong with players’ brains…even though many of them are showing clear symptoms of cognitive dysfunction, up to and including death.

Brains are rather cool organs, and they’re critically important. The skull is brilliantly designed to protect the brain, but it can only do so much — when people sustain blows to the head, it slams the brain against the side of the skull, causing coup and contrecoup injuries (contrecoup injuries are the result of the brain bouncing off the other side of the skull). Even just once, this can cause significant health repercussions. A serious injury can cause instant brain damage of varying intensity.

For football players, who go out on the field every day and take blow after blow to the head for years, the result can be a condition called cumulative traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Effectively, each little brain injury adds up over time, eventually leading to serious cognitive deficits in the patient, many of which don’t show up until the athlete has already retired (often due to other sports injuries such as blown knees and shoulders). The patient’s behavior may change radically, his life might fall apart, and when he passes away suddenly, he may or may not be autopsied.

Autopsy studies on former NFL players, including those who have donated their brains to science, show clear signs of CTE. But the NFL doesn’t track players after retirement, and it certainly doesn’t keep up with their medical progress. Consequently, it’s up to outside researchers to develop and explore theories about whether professional footballers risk their long-term cognitive health on the gridiron every Sunday, and the NFL has proved curiously resistant to this research, claiming that athletes return to play without problems after head injuries and that such injuries cause no long-term problems.

The NFL’s resistance may be a result of wanting to avoid adding safety precautions to the sport; fans have a very firmly conceived notion of what football should look like and how it should be played. Moves to make it safer, like limiting legal tackles, changing helmet design and thoroughly assessing athletes after head injuries and before their return to play, could incite backlash from fans. The league may also want to avoid responsibility for the life-long disabilities experienced by athletes.

A parallel can be seen with the Veterans Administration’s handling of CTE and brain injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan — in fact, it’s research on these very injuries that has allowed such detailed studies of civilians from the NFL. Soldiers returning to the United States who appear to be in good health and later experience severe difficulties with integration into society may be evidencing signs of CTE along with issues like PTSD, but the VA, like the NFL, has attempted to evade responsibility for the problem. In the VA’s case, it doesn’t want these disabilities becoming service connected, as then it would owe benefits to people injured in the line of duty.

In both cases, research is cracking open, so to speak, a brave new world of brain injuries, and it’s illuminating the previously poorly understood danger of repeated blows to the head. Even if those blows are mild and the athlete is wearing a protective helmet, and even if they’re part of the job, they’re not healthy, so when is the NFL going to tackle the brain injury issue?

Last year, athletes sued the NFL over brain injuries, eventually winning a large group settlement. It may have proved a key turning point, as the issue was forced into the news with the settlement, and athletes grew more aware of the risk of brain injuries and the NFL’s resistance.

Public pressure may force the issue as well, but it’s highlighting a serious issue for many fans: can they continue to enjoy the sport they love, knowing that it’s killing the people who play it?

Photo credit: US CPSC.


Gysele van Santen

football is a contact sport. once they're on the gridiron, players tackle & get tackled. hard hits happen. i'm a die-hard fan & that's not going to change.

Catrina Therrien
Catrina Therrien3 years ago

James W. Never once did I mention violence, Lol seriously the "sport" involves smashing into other is part of the game. It is how its supposed to be played. But these days they all cry like babies and there are so many rules for crying out loud you get a flag thrown for the stupisest stuff ever, they cant even play the game proper. And obviously with any PHYSICAL sport there are injuries and even brain injuries..its one of the cons of the game play. We all know it happens, it isnt a i a physical sport after all.

Catrina Therrien
Catrina Therrien3 years ago

Because Nimue P. I wonder the same thing. They cant even really play anymore because they are such babies now. You touched me...foul, flag, what have you. It cant be called a sport anymore back in the day sports were nothing like they are now, they actually played the game.

James Wilcox
James Wilcox3 years ago


Think I'm stretching it. Look at all the military advertising during televised sporting events. From singing the National Anthem at high school games to the military honor guards and fly overs at the Super Bowl, sports are seen by many as a patriotic duty.

The government is also footing the bill for this socialized behemoth. By funding huge new stadiums at tax-payer expense and maintaining all those fields, stadiums, weight rooms, uniforms, travel expenses, etc... in all those government sponsored recruitment and training centers we call public schools.

James Wilcox
James Wilcox3 years ago

Hi Margaret G, been meaning to get back to you but work came up, then my monitor quit...

Anyway you claim, "[t]o me, exempting professional sports from anti-trust legislation sounds like an absence of government control."

That's actually the epitome of government intrusion. Even big utility companies were broken up to allow competition. And the US Post Office will be next. But why was an entertainment industry given anti-trust exemption to begin with, and why sports?

You continue, "[I] write that ..." American public schools have been completely overtaken by a private entertainment industry..." You responded, "[t]his means that a big part of the government is being dominated by a private enterprise. How is this socialism?"

Because the government shouldn't be dominated by any private industry as a function of ongoing government policy. Also, as I asked before, why sports, in particular football, and not the ballet, like in Russia?

Many other nations, including several European ones, have mandatory military conscriptions for both men and women as part of their education. In America we only employ the draft during a time of war, the last time being more than forty years ago. By the government turning our schools into recruitment and training centers for a private industry, they are instilling military style values and training to every able bodied man in the country.

Think I'm stretching it. Look at all the military advertising during televised sporting events

Nimue P.

Sorry for the typo - "Catrina T" that was meant to be.

Nimue P.

Catrina F - now I'm wondering why you sent me a star after what you said. Keep your green stars to yourself.

Margaret Goodman
Margaret Goodman3 years ago

James W.

I am confused by your assertion that professional sports are an example of the "horrible influence of socialism". On the assumption that you are not being sarcastic, please explain.

I think of socialism as being government control of private enterprise. To me, exempting professional spotrts from anti-trust legislation sounds like an absence of government control.

You write that ..." American public schools have been completely overtaken by a private entertainment industry..." This means that a big part of the government is being dominated by a private enterprise. How is this socialism?

Does the fact that I've been called a "pinko" mean that the NFL and I are fellow travellers? Wow! Heady stuff for arthritic weak 74 year old female...

Bryna Pizzo
Bryna Pizzo3 years ago

Thank you! (s, p, t)

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola3 years ago

Thanks for sharing