The Costs of Football

Come Sunday afternoon, I'll join friends and family in black-and-gold, expecting the Steelers to mash the Browns.

But I'll be thinking a little differently about the price that's paid down the line by the athletes who entertain and inspire us. Our pleasure, their suffering.

You may think differently, too, if you read this GQ story about brain injuries, which begins in Pittsburgh with a scientist named Bennet Omalu, a blessing of sorts from his boss, Cyril Wecht, and what happened to Steelers icon "Iron Mike" Webster.


2 Responses to "The Costs of Football"

Mark Rauterkus said... 10/18/2009 8:37 AM

My kids won't play football other than simple 2-hand touch or passing / catching.

Furthermore, soccer is just as bad or worse. The header in that game is brutal to the soft, grey matter often called the brain.

Mike Madison said... 10/18/2009 9:29 AM

It's fair to be skeptical of heading the ball in soccer, and to be careful of what kids do, in particular.

But there is no way that the intensity or frequency of heading the ball rises to the level of the head-to-head impact that many football players encounter. A soccer player may head the ball a handful of times during a game (let's say 7 times, on average, and less frequently at youth levels); many players never head the ball at all. Roughly half of a football team will go head to head (literally) against the opposition dozens of times during a game and hundreds of times over a season. I played soccer for decades, headed the ball hundreds of times (including, occasionally, instances where my head got in the way of a rocket of a shot) and never suffered any symptoms of head trauma as a result. I did suffer black eyes - from head to head collisions with other players. Of course, that's a risk in any sport where players occupy the same competitive space, and it's even a risk in some sports, like swimming, where competitors can't always see where they are going or what they are doing.

Scientifically, researchers started to look for connections between soccer and head trauma leading to dementia around the same time that this research began on professional football players. There is no data that remotely resembles what has been identified in football.

It is also worth noting that equipment changes in the two sports point in the opposite direction: Football helmets have become stronger, which (according to the GQ article) encourages players to use their heads as weapons, increasing the likelihood of repetitive trauma. Soccer balls have become lighter and less susceptible to acquiring extra weight by absorbing water, which suggests that the body is better able to absorb the force of ball/head contact, decreasing the likelihood of trauma. Most of the former pro soccer players who have diagnosed with dementia played in the old "leather ball" era.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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