A new study, using Wisconsin players from the late 1950s, shows that playing high school football isn’t a major risk factor for depression and cognitive impairment later in life.
The study by the Journal of American Medical Association Neurology with the help of 4,000 men who came out of Wisconsin high schools in 1957 compared high school football players with non-football players and showed that the football players didn’t have as many symptoms of depression.
I had a local high school coach who has studied head trauma in football extensively and a former NFL offensive lineman who has developed his own martial-arts safety techniques to help prevent head injuries to weigh in after reading the study.
Tempe McClintock football coach Corbin Smith, whose dad, Larry, died at 68 and was the head coach at Arizona, Missouri and USC, had this to say:
“It’s hard to find validity in this study as it pertains to the impact football has on ones cognitive function and other symptoms such as depression, in today’s football world. Although the study offers great feedback and findings, this study does not have an impact, in my opinion, on similar studies that encompass a much younger age group.
“I have stated this many times: the more advanced technology becomes for football equipment, the harder players will hit and the less they will feel. Technology combined with the increasing advancement in health and nutrition, speed training and weight training programs has allowed athletes to be much bigger, faster and stronger than those that graduated high school in 1957. My own father graduated in 1957 and when he passed at age 68, he did not show any signs of any deteriorating cognitive function or depression, and he played through college and had many teeth knocked out.
“My point is simple: football hurts. It hurts to get hit and hurts even more to hit someone. Back in 1957, the equipment, shoulder pads and helmets, were but a mere shell of what they are today. Players felt it when there was contact. Players learned to use their shoulders and arms to tackle because of your head was involved you would get knocked out or have your teeth knocked out. In my opinion, because of the advancement in our equipment technology, the game has become a ‘less feel, bigger hits’ game. Football players know that it hurts to hit. The less they feel, the harder they try to feel the hit. it’s just my opinion but the way the men of the 50s and 60s played the game was much more pure and technically sound than the game today. If I had to use an analogy, it would be baseball. Back in the day, baseball bats were nothing but wood, and although major league baseball still only uses wood bats, lower levels were allowed to use metal/aluminum bats until recently when that changed to composite bats. Why the change backwards? Because of the size, strength and speed of players today that caused the ball to become a weapon off of an aluminum bat.
“Although this is a great article and study, unfortunately I see zero relevance as it pertains to today.”
Scott Peters, who played offensive line at Arizona State and for the Cardinals in the NFL, works with high school players all over the Valley with his SAFE Football techniques that requires usage of the hands and arms to combat pass rushers and avoid getting hit in the head. After suffering so many concussions during his playing days, starting in high school, Peters is on a mission to try to save the game. Here is what he had to say:
“This is a perfect example of why most studies of its kind are factually and contextually inadmissible, unreliable and irrelevant. Fortunately, the public is growing more and more skeptical of the underlying motives or special interests behind studies such as this one, as they should be. I won’t dispute the accuracy of the information or the data obtained, but I don’t need to. The basis of this particular study is flawed, as it’s not applicable to today’s game, because modern football is simply not the same game that was played in the 1950s. We might as well be comparing two different sports like soccer and football. It is understood that humans adjust their behaviors based on perceived risk & self preservation.
“Equipment has improved since the 1950’s, but ironically it’s changed in a dangerous way. As helmets and the marketing of helmets improved and evolved over the years, so did consumer confidence in their ability to protect the brain. The popular belief that helmets ‘kept us safe’ gave rise to their use as a primary tool for contact, but this wasn’t until the late 1970s, early 1980s, when the hard plastic shell replaced soft leather models. Post 1970s players perceived a level of invincibility wearing them. This is called The ‘Peltzman effect’ and it’s a real phenomenon in human psychology. The Peltzman effect theorizes that people tend to respond to their perception of safety by increasing risky behavior. For example, ‘I’m wearing a seatbelt so I don’t need to be as attentive to the road because the belt will protect me in the event of an accident, or, ‘this concussion helmet will allow me to spear my opponent over and over without injuring my brain.’ If you don’t agree with this idea, just look at professional rugby, and ask yourself how players tackle men arguably as fast and as strong as their NFL counterparts, but they don’t wear helmets. Considering the forces of impact involved, head to head collisions of this magnitude would result in catastrophic Injuries and death on a large scale and the game would have disappeared by now.
“Bottom line, equipment has played a major role in the advancement of neurological disorders like CTE in post 1970s players because since then, players have felt safe under false pretenses, and that attitude over time is in-part responsible for the modern football culture, where “stick-marks” and scratches on the helmet became a measure of manhood. Fortunately for the men of 1950s, they didn’t believe their helmets were worth more than the leather they were sewn with. In addition to equipment related issues, consider the average NFL offensive lineman in the 1950s was much smaller, averaging just 6-2, 234l pounds. There are safeties and running backs this big in today’s game, and they are undoubtedly faster, too. Intensive weight lifting, speed and agility training with the goal of developing the biggest, fastest and strongest players possible is the standard model for improvement in modern era football. This is how players and teams upgrade in the off-season.
“In contrast, off-season lifting and speed training wasn’t a mainstream practice until the mid to late 1960s, so the forces on impact were undeniably less severe. In today’s game, bigger collisions, without a fear of brain damage have altered lives, and this ill-conceived belief exists at every level of play. There are other considerations as well, but these two highlight best why this study lacks the context to be taken seriously. The only way to avoid head trauma is to train players to develop their skills using the hands and shoulders, not the helmet. Helmet contact is actually indicative of a poorly skilled football player, but that is not known by the majority of coaches, even at the NFL level because it hasn’t been a point of emphasis. We need to stop misleading and deflecting the facts, and focus on changing behaviors for the benefit of the game and its players.”