I love the game of football. It is America's passion for a reason.
Athletes learn invaluable life lessons from their participation in football at whatever level they participate. The ability to stay self-disciplined, put hard work ahead of immediate gratification, master a complex playbook, work within a team concept and elevate levels of performance in critical situations are skills transferable to success in any non-football endeavor. The sport models those values every day in a way that inspires young people.
I have enjoyed 40 years of excitement and recompense in assisting players to live a fulfilling life. But there is an ugly truth surrounding the sport that drastically needs attention — concussions cause brain damage and future catastrophic consequences.
If mothers attempt to safeguard their children by preventing them from participating in the sport, its talent supply will dry up. And if the risks push every athlete with other options to play those sports instead, all that will remain are athletes so desperate to escape economic circumstances that they accept the prospect of later mental disability as a necessity.
Football will always be a contact game with the risk of concussion. I believe that the very line play, that is the basis of the game, produces low-level concussion events on every single play. When offensive and defensive linemen collide to begin a play they are suffering a slight change in their consciousness. Their brains are forced against the interior skull.
No one is knocked out, they just go on to the next play. The definition of concussion is not confined to someone suffering a blow, which knocks them unconsciousness. It is a blow to the head or body causing a change in brain function.
It is possible that an offensive lineman could retire after a career of high school, collegiate, and professional practices and games with thousands of sub-concussive hits, not one of which was ever measured or monitored. This is why I think this issue is an undiagnosed health epidemic, which is a ticking time bomb for future consequences.
I want to see high school, college and NFL football continue to be played and enjoyed by players and fans alike. Action is urgently needed. First, blocking and tackling with the head or neck needs to be eliminated from Pop Warner and earliest football experiences. We need coaches to teach alternative techniques to kids so they know how to be effective from their youth on. Then these proscribed hits need to be heavily penalized at every level.
Second priority is for research and development resources into safer helmetry. Current helmets primarily protect against skull fracture, the energy wave goes right through the plastic and liner to the head. If we can send a spacecraft into deep space, engineers and techs can find a way to attenuate the blow. Several promising technologies are racing for solution.
Third priority is for more sophisticated diagnostic measuring devices that can evaluate players rapidly on the sidelines to judge whether they have been impaired and should not return to play. Players need to be asymptomatic at rest, on exercise equipment, and at practice prior to returning to play so they can avoid second concussion syndrome.
Fourth priority is to find pharmaceutical or nutraceutical medicines and supplements that can provide some prophylactic protection prior to the hit. When the hit occurs the right medicines ingested quickly can minimize consequence.
The ultimate goal is to find a substance that will heal the already concussed brain. Research scientist and medical personnel are currently racing to find the most effective protocols to achieve this. The NFL is not the only place that these injuries occur — youth sports participants, high school and college athletes in a variety of sports are at risk. It is the NFL that has the prestige and resources to take the lead in this research.
Parents, marital partners, owners, coaches, trainers, doctors need to unite to penetrate the denial that athletes are involved in from their earliest days when it regards injury and long-term health.
We are close to launching a concussion awareness and research foundation, Athlete's Speak, to put active and retired athletes in the forefront of speaking out for greater safety.
This injury is different from the rest — it affects the brain, memory, personality, and reasoning. Everyone who loves football needs to act to preserve it.
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports.