Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote an excellent article on the nature of brain damage sustained by athletes in heavy contact sports such as football and boxing. I'll summarize briefly and add a few points of my own.
Researchers are beginning to find abnormally large accumulations of the tau protein, which is also found in late stage alzheimer's patients, in the brains of deceased lineman, running back and linebackers. Examination of an 18 year old high school football player's brain who had passed away revealed more tau accumulation than in the average 50-60 year old man.
Gladwell also speaks of the dogs that were brutalized by the dog-fighting ring by Michael Vick and his colleagues in Virginia. The dogs that survived the brutality of the ring were taken to a care facility to either be adopted out, or to spend the rest of their days in the home. Most of the dogs have become friendly enough to interact with the staff of the facility, and many are now completely friendly to people. This is significant because these very dogs were selected for gameness, or the desire to perform a task no matter the consequence. The dogs fought not because they were mean or vicious animals, but because they have an intense desire to please their master. They would literally rather die than fail at a task set forth by their owners. We see other facets of life in which gameness is important, soldiers, doctors, and most notably, football players; football players are expected to play through pain, keep quiet when they are hurting and put the game above their own general welfare. Being in charge of something that would run through a brick wall for you carries a degree of responsibility; Good dog owners don't take advantage of their dogs gameness in the fighting ring, but rather in any number of productive and humane dog activities. The dog doesn't care what the activity is, it will be happy completing any task its owner has set out for it. Commanders don't send soldiers on suicide missions and chiefs of staff dont ask residents to stay awake for 72 hours performing life saving surgeries.
Coaches and owners in the NFL have no such sense of responsibility. They routinely send players out to play hurt, and chastise them when they can't play. It is a good thing in the NFL to be known as a warrior, or someone who puts the game before themselves. The NFL has recently enacted rules that are supposed to protect its players from vicious hits to the head, but studies done at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill show that the players are sustaining hits equivalent to being in a 15 MPH car wreck with no seatbelt and hitting their head on the windshield 5 or 6 times a practice. None of those hits would be classified as illegal or even dangerous under the new rules. Now the NFL wants to expand the season to 18 games to line its pockets with even more of the bloodthirsty public's dollars. It is hard for me to believe that those a league that really cares for its players would do such a thing.
I'll be the first to admit that I don't have a solution, and football will continue to be played as long as fans fill the seats and advertisers fill the commercial slots. I do know one thing though, I am certainly glad to have only played two years of high school football, and any children that I have won't even play that much.