T Nation

Thoughts on American Football, CTE etc


First of all, I love the NFL - even though I’m not American - and follow it closely. But have been concerned re the safety issues within the sport and for its future following the seemingly overwhelming evidence that it causes permanent brain injury in a large percentage of its athletes, especially at the elite level. The NFL has itself recently admitted this openly. Thoughts from you guys that have grown up with the game?

Can the sport ever be made safe without changing it substantially, to the point where it is almost unrecognizable?

Would you ever let you kids play? If so, at what age? (Personally I wish I had the opportunity to play - but would not allow my son to till he was at least 12, and perhaps older.)

Where is the sport heading in the future? As popular as it is, a number of parents are not allowing their kids to play.


The game is already changing.


I grew up playing football. My mom took me to sign up for peewee football and I played my first season at age 7. I played up into high-school, and then lost interest in the game for some reason. Oddly, my love for hockey remained though… my north european blood perhaps? lol

I remember getting hit HARD as a kid. Especially, from the ages of 11 and up-- any younger, I think kids don’t have as much power to cause damage. Puberty is when kids seemed to have gain the capacity to really crush another kid, even in practice. I wouldn’t trade it for anything though. I feel like kids who grew up in non-aggressive type sports or activities like that (in a healthy sportsmanship atmosphere of course) are losing something in their development as a boy/man. I know the guys I grew up with playing football, we all still have sort of that “bond” of our childhood. To me, it is the closest most boys are going to get to experience and learn that “battle” mentality with a group of guys. You’re learning about winning, losing, and working hard as a team and can exercise that aggression that I believe is natural in most boys.

So, if my kid wanted to play and had interest, I would most definitely let them play. There is a risk with the game of course, as with anything. I don’t watch football, so I honestly don’t know much about what is going with the game now concerning the NFL or what have you. I think they’ll figure out how to make the game safer without taking the intensity out of it.


I agree with Pangloss. The rules of the game are changing to eliminate “head hunting” and other cheap shots. I’m glad to see it. Football is a tough game already, that other b.s. is really not necessary.

Even the worst offenders, Harrison and Merriweather finally seemed to get it.

I’m not a doctor; but Junior Seau played the most physical position in the game, for 20 years. He also had a famously aggressive, hard hitting, head knocking style. To equate a few seasons of middle school football to what Seau put his brain through is not legitimate, in my opinion.

If my son was really slender and small, and his high school team sucked, I might not be excited about him playing.


I played football from age 9 through 22, with a modestly successful career as an offensive lineman playing at a small college, and have an assortment of friends that played on all levels, including a longtime family friend who played seven years in the NFL. Believe it or not…I have a few thoughts. Much of this will echo some of Evolv and FlatsFarmer’s comments.

Let’s start with this: the game cannot be sterilized completely from risk. That doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and not even try to improve things, but we must acknowledge this fundamental reality: the fact that it’s a “contact sport” is a large part of the appeal, and no one would watch if it was just transformed into a game of flag football. There will be broken legs, broken arms, torn-up ligaments, and yes, concussions.

On the flip side: there are absolutely things that can be changed to make it safe-er than it is now, and most guys who complain about flags on helmet-to-helmet hits by saying things like “this is ruining the league” have probably never been had their head smashed in by a 230-pound man running full speed (and their full speed is a whole lot faster than yours) with a 20-yard running start.

Here are the changes that I would make:

  1. Defensive backs are no longer allowed to break up pass attempts by targeting the man catching the ball and obliterating him right as the ball arrives; the defender must make an attempt to actually make a play on the ball (very similar to the way basketball defense must be played - you can steal a pass by intercepting it before it reaches the man, but you can’t just run up and clobber the guy as he receives a pass).

There are plenty of violent collisions in the interior line, but the truth is the most cringe-worthy hits for me to watch as a fan are the hits where a safety lines up with a 20 yard running start and earholes a wide receiver trying to make a catch along the sideline. In that situation, IMO, the safety should have to actually attempt to break up the pass by deflecting the ball. If he blatantly ignores the ball and just crashes into the receiver in a naked attempt to separate ball from man…I’d make that a penalty.

  1. In a similar vein: every tackle attempt would have to include a genuine attempt to “wrap” the man and bring them to the ground. No more “tackles” that involve “run at the guy and just dive into him as hard as possible with my head down.” The defensive player should not be allowed to merely topple the offensive player like a bowling ball taking down a bowling pin. For example, a tackle like this…

…in which the defensive player makes NO attempt whatsoever to wrap his arms around the offensive player would be flagged. Tackle attempts that must involve a bona fide “wrap” attempt are, by nature, going to be a little less violent because there’s no option to just use your body as a missile and dive at someone.

No doubt this will bring complaints from defensive players that it makes their job harder. Yes, I know. Too bad! Every team’s defense will have to play by the same rules. If it makes the games higher-scoring, so be it (or better yet, the NFL could adjust a number of other things that would make it a little harder for the offense as well - for example, starting on 1st-and-15 instead of 1st-and-10).

I would absolutely NOT remove the helmets.(or its cousin “remove the facemask”). I’ve never really bought this argument that taking the helmet off will make the game safer because it would inherently force guys to stop leading with their head…I think that’s true, but I’m also guessing it would also lead to a lot more fractures of noses and orbital bones. You can make a decent argument that just turning the NFL into rugby would be a cool thing, but that’s a different reality I’m not going to discuss here.

Closing thoughts:

It’s a physical game, and there always will be injuries. The thing that’s bothered me most about retired NFL players in crippling condition is not their physical condition itself - realistically, that’s something everyone who played the game had to know was coming - but rather the cold, callous manner with which the NFL handles the crippled retirees. The league could have done itself a world of public-relations good by announcing (as soon as there was PR smoke around this issue) that all retired NFL players who spent at least X games on an active roster would be offered comprehensive medical-insurance coverage for life, and from this day forth all currently active players who appear in at least X games will receive the same benefits package on the day of their retirement.

Much as Evolv has noted - I also believe that the benefits of playing youth sports far outweigh the drawbacks, even with something as “dangerous” as football. Kids will get hurt falling off their bikes, falling out of trees, diving into the shallow end of the pool, etc - to say nothing of the bigger-picture “life” risks of falling in with the wrong crowd, doing drugs, drinking, whatever other vices. I’d much rather have my child engaged in a team sport, even if it carries some degree of injury risk, and learning how to be part of a team, listening to a coach, the importance of being on time, winning, losing…all the stuff that Evolv mentioned.

I also think the risk of CTE is much, MUCH higher for guys that have played high-level Division I and NFL football than it is for the vast majority of middle-school and high-school kids playing ball. I was no shrinking violet on the field, but watching my tapes and comparing them to the hits doled out in NFL games…there is just no comparison. Most of us are just not strong and fast enough to deliver those kinds of crippling blows. I remember a small handful of hits that I felt were real slobberknockers from college, but even seeing those on tape later, they’re nothing compared to what happens nearly every play in the NFL.


Was that Ward on Gronkowski? He’s dirty too.

Maybe some Florida can will remember, a couple seasons ago. Some young UT defensive back made a super ugly tackle, just tumbling into the Florida qb’s legs and injuring dude’s leg. It cost the QB the rest of his season. And probably. Eventually, coach what’s his names job.

If the Tenn. DB had made any effort to wrap up, like Activities Guy recommends, it would have been just another play.


I played football for 12 years all the way through college (DIII). Used to be a huge Steelers fan too (hence my handle). I loved the game because of the collisions. I loved the way you could, through your own violence of action, intimidate your opponent into indecision, which would lead to mistakes that you could capitalize on. This is no longer the case. The present-day iteration of the game does not entertain me at all. I’ll catch a few minutes of the occasional Steeler game, but I haven’t seen a full game since I got free tickets to the 2014 opener.

I respect AG’s opinion w.r.t. rule changes but I do not agree with them at all. You really want refs making judgment calls on every tackle and catch? That’s essentially what you’re asking for, and it sounds like a nightmare.



I respect your respectful disagreement, and I agree that this would create a lot of judgement calls. I think we (fans) could adapt, as could referees, coaches, and players. Heck, rules like this already exist in basketball, soccer, and hockey - the officials in those sports (there are fewer officials on the field in all of those, although there are also fewer players to monitor) have to make judgement calls on whether every screen is a moving pick, whether every dribble-drive includes enough contact from the defender to warrant a foul, whether every time a soccer player hits the turf was incited by contact from the defense, etc. All three of those sports are quite popular globally.

I’ll concede that it would likely turn off fans like yourself even more, because you’d view that as ticky-tack stuff and presumably you watch(ed) football over sports like basketball, soccer, and hockey precisely because this was a game where that stuff doesn’t get called a foul/penalty.

Did you grow up and play your college ball in the Pittsburgh area? I grew up on the other side of the state, but I’ve lived here for 12 years now. Played at CMU, good chance that we have some sort of six-degrees-of-separation connection given that my college coach is a Mt. Lebo alum and I had college teammates from all around the area.


Yeah you’re right. Apparently they’re doing the right thing because the game keeps getting more popular, myself notwithstanding.

The NFL brass doesn’t have to worry about turning me off because they lost me a long time ago. It’s probably for the best, because I was one of those people that got way too emotionally invested in the games. When everything I loved about the game started becoming the subject of fines and suspensions, and started getting called “dirty,” I decided it wasn’t for me any more.

I played at Case Western from '00-'03 (y’know, right before we got good). I wore #45, played Will LB my first two years, Sam junior year, and Mike/Nose my senior year. We only beat Mellon my junior year. Got our fucking asses handed to us every other game. I used to be pretty salty about it too. Went to a few CMU/Case games after that just to heckle Lackner. Nobody from Case liked Lackner, but I fucking HATED him and I can’t even remember why. Something to do with telling recruits that CMU beats Case every year, and brushing me off when I went on a campus visit.


Ha! We just missed playing against each other. I played for CMU from '04-'07. We had a couple of really good games against Case - won a tough game in Cleveland in 2006 on our way to the playoffs, and then Case beat us 20-17 in OT in Pittsburgh on their way to the 2007 playoffs, kicking off the front end of Case’s mini-dynasty. Not sure if you’re still following, but both teams are looking pretty promising for next year and last year’s CMU-Case game was a real barnburner.

You know, it’s funny that you say you “used to” be pretty salty about it…I remember hating the guys from Case and WashU while I was in school, but then talking to a couple of my buddies later and saying “You know what? Deep down they’re probably just like us, and I’m pretty sure if we switched places, those guys would be our pals.” At that level most of us are pretty much the same guy, just wearing different jerseys.


Yeah, we’re all slightly above average athletes with decent brains and a fuckload of student loan debt, LOL. One of my cousins went to CMU, and another one of my cousins works there now. Seems like a pretty sweet place from what they tell me. CMU and Case were the only two schools I applied to. Got into both, but Case has merit scholarships and Mellon doesn’t (or didn’t), so it was a pretty easy choice.

I have been following the Case program a little bit; mostly just checking the scores during the season. Haven’t been to a game in a decade though.


If you want to make it safer, make the helmet less of a weapon. Take away the ultra plush, cushy padding that encourages using your head because it doesn’t hurt. Go back to the Riddell with the hard ass “butter cups” from the 70s and 80s. We didn’t want to use our heads because it hurt like hell. My boys play middle school ball and their Xenith helmets are unbelievable. You could get hit in the head with a sledge hammer in one of those things and it wouldn’t hurt.


One step the league has taken is to move the touchback up to the 25 yard line. By decreasing the incentive to run the ball back on a kick-off they’ve reduced the risk to the kick returner.


Pangloss - we’ll see how that works out, but I’m not convinced they’ll actually end up with more touchbacks - yes, the return team has less incentive to take it out of the endzone, but now the kicking team has less incentive to boot the ball into the endzone in the first place, so you might see more attempts to drop a high kick into the corner between the 5-15 yard line.

Plus, why even make the kickoff teams line up, if they’re just planning to take a touchback? Just give the offense the option to take the ball on the 25, or receive a kickoff if they choose. (Perhaps the choice should be given to the kicking team, actually, to allow for end-of-game onside kicks)


I think its the same as to why they make pitchers throw four pitches when they want to intentionally walk a guy in baseball. They might want to walk him, but they have to actually perform the task.

You have to make the kicker/team actually execute what they want to do.


Drew: I kinda get that, but I don’t think the same logic really applies. An intentional walk is something done for competitive reasons (that they’d rather put a guy on base vs. letting him swing away) while the kickoff change is being made for safety reasons - the contention is that the kickoff is an especially dangerous play, so we should incentivize the teams to have less of them competitive…but if the kickoff is so dangerous we have to decrease the number of returned kicks (not even changing the way the play is actually contested to make it safer, but actively trying to discourage the play from happening at all), why bother contesting the down?


Remember the Florida State dynasty, 15-20 years ago?

Big-ass Janokowski would put every kickoff between the uprights.

Or Viginia Tecs pecial teams? They blocked like 2kicks a game!

Devin Hester running back the opening kick off of the Super Bowl?!

Safety first, but football needs kicks!


Fair point, if it is driven by safety and league mandated its a different argument.


WashU offensive lineman here from 2000-2003, I’m amused there are so many UAA football players on this website.


Ha! Indeed.

Former offensive lineman here, as well.

I’m a little slimmer these days, though.