By Nathan Risinger


Is football safe enough?  Recently several cases of retired players displaying symptoms of serious head trauma have led to increased scrutiny of the damage caused by playing football.


Symptoms run the gamut from uncontrollable anger, to memory loss, to impaired motor function.  A growing body of evidence documents these cases.  For example, a 2007 study conducted at the University of North Carolina found that over twenty percent of former players that had sustained multiple concussions also suffered from depression.


These studies have caused enough interest and concern for a congressional hearing to be held on the subject.  Initially the NFL (lead by commissioner Roger Goodell) denied that they were in any way culpable, or had conducted themselves irresponsibly in regard to player safety.  However, after damning testimony from several doctors, the real picture – that of players suffering sometimes multiple concussions per season – became clear.


In response the NFL has changed the rules of the game.  No longer are you allowed to lead into a tackle with your head; it must be your shoulder.  Also, helmet-to-helmet contact has been severely restricted, with the referees taking the preventive measure of awarding large penalties to the aggressor.   The league even went so far as to shorten the distance of the kickoff (instead of teams kicking from the 30 yard line, the new rules state that kickoffs must occur on the 35 yard line) so that players would not have the opportunity to build up a full head of steam before crashing into their opponents.


Unfortunately, as we saw last season these rule changes only partially solve the problem.  In a game as inherently aggressive as football, blows to the head are, to some degree, inevitable.  Also, some players seem to simply disregard both the medical evidence and the penalties, and are still happy to throw themselves head-first into a wide receiver or running back.


This issue raises some interesting ethical questions.  Should we afford players a greater degree of cranial protection? Who is responsible for implementing such measures – the league? the players union? the owners?  And perhaps most importantly: do we (the fans) have some sort of moral obligation not to watch – and therefore not to fund – a sport which leaves its players with long lasting physical injuries, and potentially impaired cognitive abilities?


First, we must implement even more stringent guidelines for protecting players.  To date, the league has gone about this the wrong way.  Instead of simply changing the rules of the game (a well-intentioned policy that does virtually nothing for player safety, while at the same time making the game less exciting to watch) we also must amp up the level of protection we give players


Of course, new helmets and pads introduce a variable that rule-changing does not: money.  It is much cheaper to shorten the kickoff by five or ten yards than to equip every team with completely redesigned helmets.   But expense is never a particularly compelling argument in the face of personal safety, and in the case of the NFL it is almost laughable. Every single team in the league is valued at over $1 billion.  As a whole, the league only spends $4.5 billion on players. While this appears to be an impressive chunk of change there are currently thirty two NFL franchises. Obviously there are numerous other costs inherent in running a professional football team (travel, staff, stadium upkeep etc.), but, even with all of these factors, football is an incredibly profitable business, and a couple of sets of new helmets and pads doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.


Unfortunately,  the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE),  the regulatory body for the quality control and production of helmets, is woefully inadequate.  According to the New York Times, “NOCSAE accepts no role in ensuring that helmets, either new or old, meet even its limited requirement.  The standard has not changed meaningfully since it was written in 1973.”


If we are serious about promoting meaningful change when it comes to football related head injuries we must either revamp, or simply throw-out the NOCSAE.  Without a strong regulatory committee on the manufacture and production of helmets there is no chance of improvement.


There is however some hope.  There have been several studies conducted into the possibility of engineering a new, safer football helmet. While new helmets may not completely stymie the flow of injuries they are certainly a step in the right direction.


A second issue that calls for some consideration is that of youth participation.  There are over 425,000 participants in Pop Warner football programs across the USA, to say nothing of all those who play football at a middle school, high school, or collegiate level.  Unlike the professional stars of the NFL, these junior athletes are not being directly paid for the risks they take. Responsible adults should ensure that these youth are as safe as possible and that the public is educated about the more dangerous aspects of the game.


Last month the Ivy League, in conjunction with the Big Ten, announced it would be combining research efforts in an attempt to prevent more head injuries.  It is this type of proactive policy that needs to be furthered if we are to continue to condone the participation of student-athletes in a sport like football.


The question of audience responsibility is slightly more complicated.  In some sense the audience does bear some responsibility for the safety of the players.  After all football is nothing more than a form of entertainment.  Its very survival as a sport depends on its ability to pull large crowds into the stadiums, and glue fans to their television sets.  In this sense the audience is a knowing and willing participant in an activity that causes obvious physical harm to its participants.


However, there are plenty of sports, watched on a regular basis, that are much more dangerous to their participants than football (freestyle skiing, NASCAR, and rugby all come to mind), and yet we don’t consider ourselves responsible for a skiing accident, or a car crash.  Furthermore the degree to which each individual audience member is culpable is minute.  As a whole we may bear a portion of the responsibility, but, because we are such a large and diverse collection (over 111 million people tuned into the Super Bowl last year), it is not only impractical, but almost impossible to suggest an audience-sponsored solution.


At the end of the day, the ones who shoulder the real responsibility are the players.  Therefore, the drive for safer equipment should begin with them. It is their health that is at risk, and they are the ones making a conscious decision to be exposes to potential injuries each time they step onto the field.  No one is putting a gun to their heads and making them play football.  They choose to play.


That is not to say that they have an easy path to follow.  As we saw recently with the NFL lockout, the players union is not at its most powerful, and isn’t on the best terms with the team owners. However, this concept of choice is still important. Just like F1 drivers and ski racers, players in the NFL should have a right to play their game of choice. In making that choice, they should also knowingly assume both the risks and the rewards, and take on responsibility for their own safety. Their chosen profession (like driving an F1 car, or racing a downhill course) is one that has very real, and very permanent dangers, but dangers that can and should be recognized and mediated as much as possible.


Nathan Risinger, B.A., is a research assistant at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.  He is interested in the concept of free will, especially in relation to the possibility of objective moral truths.

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One Response to “Op-Ed: The Ethics of Football Helmets”

  1. […] By Nathan Risinger. Is football safe enough? Recently several cases of retired players displaying symptoms of serious head trauma have led to increased scrutiny of the damage caused by playing football.  […]

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