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Can Football be Played Safely?

By       Message Ralph E. Stone     Permalink
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The Super Bowl is over.  Or the "stupid bowl" as my wife calls it.  Now, the National Football League (NFL) should address the safety of football and the exaggerated claims for equipment designed to protect players from injury.  Not only are pro-football injuries and concussions at a nine-year high, but brain-related injuries are the most common type of injury in NFL games.  As the season progresses, the chance of injury increases.  It is not an exaggeration to say that 
there is a national public health crisis of concussions in sports -- estimated to total four million annually, not including the possibility that tens of millions more "sub-concussive" head blows contribute to youth mental deterioration.
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I will always remember the sight of Jim Otto, former center for the Oakland Raiders, on television.   Otto completed 308 consecutive games, punishing his body, resulting in nearly 40 surgeries, including 28 knee operations (nine of them during his playing career alone) and multiple joint replacements. His joints are riddled with arthritis, and he has debilitating back and neck problems.  He had his right leg amputated in 2007.  He suffered numerous concussions.  Admittedly, Otto took  "playing with or through pain" to an absurd level.  But should the NFL or the Oakland Raiders or their physicians have allowed Otto to abuse his body for the sake of the game?  Otto claims it was all worth it to be one of the gladiators to satisfy the blood thirst of American couch potatoes.   

Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback for the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, has suffered two concussions already in his young career, and Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback  Ben Roethlisberger  has suffered four concussions so far.
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In January 2011, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission announced his  agency is looking into marketing claims that some football helmets can help reduce concussions.  The investigation will focus on safety marketing claims for some new helmets and reconditioned used ones to determine whether they are misleading and deceptive.  For example,  Riddell, the official helmet supplier for the NFL, claims --  based on a 2006 article in the journal Neurosurgery -- that:  "Wearing the [Riddell] Revolution helmet was associated with approximately a 31% decreased relative risk and 2.3% decreased absolute risk for sustaining a concussion in this cohort study."  Dr. Joseph Maroon is a co-author of this study and is the neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Dr. Maroon now discredits the study.  The FTC investigation will include an examination as to whether the Neurosurgery study supports Riddel's claim of a 31 percent decrease in risk by wearing the Revolution helmet.  Hopefully, the investigation will also go beyond the Neurosurgery study to other clinical research relied upon by the NFL to minimize the danger of brain trauma in football.

Maybe, national and local sports writers and broadcasters across the country will begin to report on this sensitive subject now that the FTC is involved.    Can football be played at an acceptable safety level?   And what is an acceptable safety level?  Until these questions are answered, I suggest, with apologies to Willie Nelson, "Mammas don't let your babies grow up to be football players."
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I recommend  Ben McGraph's article in the Jan. 31, 2011, The New Yorker, "Does Football Have A Future?"
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I was born in Massachusetts; graduated from Middlebury College and Suffolk Law School; served as an officer in the Vietnam war; retired from the Federal Trade Commission (consumer and antitrust law); travel extensively with my wife Judi; and since (more...)
 

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