How Dangerous Is Football?

(image courtesy realclearsports)

I played rugby for several years, both in college and post-college. Just about every person who heard I played rugby had the following comment: “Rugby? Isn’t that dangerous?” Yes, rugby is a rough sport, and I can’t deny that (especially with two screws in my knee from a rugby practice-related injury). But I always tell people that I feel rugby is safer than American Football, which has always struck me as a dangerous and chaotic sport. There’s been quite a bit of debate about concussions and football lately, and according to Forbes, even former football player Kurt Warner doesn’t want his kids playing football!

From Forbes:

In 2010, Warner told CNN that concussions were part of the game of football — and, he says now, that’s part of the problem. While awareness of the long-term severity of concussions, and improvement in their immediate diagnosis, has grown significantly in recent years, Warner’s statement brings up two scary scenarios for parents.

First, you just don’t know how your child’s body will react to a concussion. Second, the peer pressure is still strong to hide a concussion as much as possible so you can get back on the field.

Warner has a long explanation on his website as well:

In a world where perception is reality, you can imagine the pressure in professional sports to get back on the field. The pressure can be personal in that a player doesn’t want to let down his teammates by sitting out a game when everyone says he is cleared to play. The pressure can be peer driven. The ambiguous looks and feelings one derives from coaches and players that say, “you need to be on the field for us”. Whether these are real or just thought up doesn’t really matter, because either way they weigh upon an athletes mind. Then there is the pressure for many marginal players that if they don’t get out there and play their job will be given to another person and their career could be over. But, probably the most demanding pressure is that those playing football are supposed to be TOUGH. And we all know that tough means having the ability to play through injury. Those that place their pain aside and lineup next to their teammates for battle gain instant recognition from their team. Nobody in this business wants to be recognized by his teammates/organization as ‘soft’.

So although it sounds pretty simple to say all we need to do is treat concussions better than we have in the past, it is much more difficult to ensure this is going to a happen. It becomes vital that medical staffs continue to proceed with caution in each and every situation – regardless of the position or status of the particular player. And on the flip side it becomes just as vital for the player to be fully forthcoming with the medical staff/organization on where they feel they are in the recovery process and with any ongoing effects they may be suffering. (Note: this is something very difficult for a professional player who is very aware of his body and what normal feels like, but much more difficult, in my opinion, for a young child who does not fully understand what exactly they are feeling or suffering from.)

I personally understand how difficult it is to handle all of these varying aspects of concussions and pressure, and in the midst of it all try to make the ‘right’ decision on what you ought to do as a player. I know there have been times when I have fallen prey to the pressures of the business and then another time when I was able to withstand the questions and make the right decision for me personally. It would seem that one would be much easier than the other, but I speak from experience when I say they were equally difficult.

Here sit your two options: To feel on one hand that you are letting down those closest to you off the field, but appeasing the powers that be (org, coaches, teammates) or to feel as if you are letting down the powers that be, but making the best decision for you personally both immediately and for the future. Can you understand the pressure or difficulty of making this decision?

Honestly, I agree with a great deal of his argument. I have seen teammates on the rugby pitch argue they should head back into a game where they are clearly hurt, and I have seen people turn up days after playing a game of rugby with injuries they did not get treated right away because they thought they could shake it off. And that’s a women’s rugby team, where we weren’t varsity, and we certainly were not professionals. It is hard to admit you are hurt in the heat of the moment, and that’s the case whether it’s a head injury or a torn knee ligament (say, if you hypothetically tore your ACL and then pretended it was fine for 24 hours…not that I know anything about that.)

I said above that despite the dangers in both, I think rugby is safer than football, and I am not the only one. There have been multiple studies indicating the injury rate in rugby is LOWER than football, and much of that gets credited to the lack of padding in rugby. If you tackle someone and neither of you has much protection, it’s going to hurt both of you. A lot. If you tackle someone wearing heavy pads and a helmet, there’s a false sense of security. It also means tackles are given more leeway to be sloppy. In rugby, there is no sloppiness tolerated. A referee will call a penalty for a high tackle and other unsafe practices, because with no padding that can be significantly more unsafe. Plus, football helmets have been studied as a potential source of injury, so clearly padding isn’t always the answer.

Now, I don’t have kids. But if I had kids old enough to play football, I don’t think I would support them participating. Unsurprisingly, given my bias throughout this post, I would be ok with my kids playing youth rugby. It just seems like the safety awareness in football is just too behind the curve, especially if a former professional wouldn’t want his children playing. All amateur athletes look to emulate the pros in some way, and if a pro doesn’t think football is safe, well, that’s a giant red flag to me!


Categories: Health and Fitness

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3 replies

  1. I can’t be sure what would happen with out the pads and the helmets, but I am starting to think that maybe those aren’t such a good idea.  Think about it.  When you are all suited up in all that padding you probably feel invincible.  Since everyone else ALSO has the same stuff, then you feel like you can hit harder and take more risks.

    Maybe if they played without the pads they would feel more vulnerable and be prone to take less risks?  

    • That’s exactly what happens in rugby.

      The phrase “this hurts me more than it hurts you” can easily be applied to a rugby tackle.