As a kid growing up in the south, I know the 3 F's in life very well.......Faith, Family, and Football. So just as much as it will pain you to read this, it hurts me twice is much to have to write it. However, the facts are the facts. As a social innovation firm, it is our job to fix problems in organizations from small businesses to school districts. Before we do anything, we must first diagnose the problem. This may not seem like great timing for this, with the season starting this week, but it is the best time to get your attention seeing that you have been waiting for football all summer. Let me be clear about one thing: Saying something is dying does not mean it is dead. Football can be saved. But, the arguments I am about to present make for a very bleak future for a sport many Americans love. My goal is to bring awareness to these issues. I also want to show that it is not only the responsibility of the NFL to save football but that each fan has a responsibility in saving football for future generations to enjoy. Let's get started.
The Danger Of CTE
From Junior Seau to those who currently play under the Friday night lights, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE has touched many in the football community. Since 2002, when it was discovered that football legend Mike Webster had CTE, it has been a thorn in the side of the NFL and done much to increase the anxiety in parents of young boys (more on that later). There are four stages to the degenerative disease:
1. In the first stage, there is a buildup of tau in the frontal lobe. Tau is a protein that forms around the brain's blood vessels. Tau not only interrupts normal function, it ultimately kills nerve cells. Yet, this stage asymptomatic and often goes undiscovered.
2. During the 2nd stage, symptoms begin to appear as people display episodes of impulsivity, depression, and even rage. The protein begins to affect more nerve cells.
3. The 3rd stage sees a progression of the tau protein from the crown (top) of the brain to the temporal (side) of the brain. This leads to confusion, memory loss, and impaired emotion.
4. The 4th and final stage is indicated by a severe number of nerve cells dying which leads to a deformed, brittle, and a brain that can shrink to nearly half the size of a healthy brain. Cognitive function is severely reduced at this point and advanced dementia sets in that ultimately leads to death.
Imagine this horrible progression of the condition happening to an 18-year-old kid. That's what happened with one teen who was diagnosed a few years back (family did not want to disclose his name) with having CTE. When a parent hears these statistics, they are understandably very alarmed. This leads me to my next point.
The Decline Of Youth Football
Growing up in Memphis, you know the football schedule in the city. You have high school football on Friday nights, Pop Warner on Saturday morning, college football the rest of the day, and the NFL on Sunday. Over the course of the last decade, the Pop Warner part of that formula has declined drastically with middle and high school football programs around the country beginning to be disbanded. CTE has been only part of the reason for the decline. One of the biggest reasons for the decline is due to the casual participants of football at that age. The core participants are defined as children 6-17 who play at least 26 organized games a year with casual participants active less than that. In the past, casual participants were able to convert to core participants by maintaining interest. Simple things like throwing the ball in the backyard, playing in open fields with friends, or even playing in the street were all attributed to the pipeline of programs all over the country and, ultimately, the NFL. Today's kids do not go outside nearly as much as they used to, which has contributed to this decline. It is this very decline that may give rise to a new American sports powerhouse.