I would like to open up this controversial article by saying that I love College Football. So so so much. It is my favorite thing. This article was borne out of a tough conversation with a colleague. A conversation that through much sadness and fear of change, I had to concede on out of logic, rational thought, and care for people’s well-being. A good way to open my argument is with a common statement that is becoming rather high profile as of late.
“I don’t think I’d let my son play football.”
There is a reason that line is uttered by many from presidents to celebrities. Football is dangerous. The relatively recent data that has already come out and that will continue to come out over the next few years is incredibly damning for the sport.
Football: NJSIAA executive committee approves on 1st reading recommendation to limit contact in practice to 15 minutes a week during season and 6 hours a week, including scrimmages, during preseason. Vote was unanimous. Needs another approval at 2nd reading to start 2019 season— Philip Anastasia (@PhilAnastasia) February 13, 2019
New Jersey is moving to approve the strictest high school football contact rules in the country. The NJSIAA unanimously approved a proposal last week that would reduce in-season full practice-field contact from 90 minutes per week to a maximum of 15 minutes per week, and then pre-season full contact, would be reduced to 6 hours, with the existing ban on full contact in spring and summer remaining unchanged. Last year, California lawmakers introduced a bill that would set a minimum age for contact football. The bill was eventually pulled, but still, the fact that this issue is getting the attention of lawmakers indicates the growing severity of the issue. There are valid worries about concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the latter of which is primarily diagnosed after death (though thanks to new biomedical studies that may be changing.) CTE and the head injuries leading up to it can cause serious issues including a lifetime of depression, memory loss, anxiety, balance issues, and aggression. These head injuries brought about by football are occurring during the most vulnerable time of these young players— their youth and their physical and mental development/growth. This alarming study from 2018 showed that College Football players already had the biomarkers present which are indicative of brain damage even before their seasons started.
“It was quite shocking to learn that the biomarkers were high before they were even involved in one hit or tackle for the season,” said Linda Papa, MD, lead author of the study and emergency medicine physician at Orlando Health “This suggests that the effects of past head injuries are persisting over time.”
This image below, I’m sure is one that many of us have seen before. That large foreboding cavity in the center of the brain starts at the first concussion and grows with each new hit.
Depending on position, an eighth grader in full-contact football that continues the sport through college has a lot of time opportunity for hits and thus a high chance for that hole to continue enlarging. My colleague who I discussed the topics of this article with played football in high school. He said to me, “you know I took quite a few hard hits, and sometimes I gotta wonder if... they impacted me.” This made me really sad.
This growing body of data is not about, “turning America into a soft country,” which I see as the number one response from angry parents and football fans in opposition to these studies’ between the lines suggestions to limit or even ban contact football at certain levels. It’s about protecting these vulnerable members of our society whose brains and bodies aren’t even finished growing yet while also trying to satiate our societal need for a certain type of sport.
More data will come out. More states will introduce measures like New Jersey is attempting. Some places will even start to ban football. It’s only a matter of time. And as this societal turnover occurs, another issue is that minority and low-income players will be the last ones in, the effects of head injuries disproportionately affecting them more. Why? Well, the reason is multi-fold. For starters, a poll from 2014 revealed that 66 percent of football fans who earned more than $50,000 a year were more likely to have heard a good deal about the link between football and brain damage, compared to 47 percent of those who made less than $50,000 a year. The link is that higher-income people tend to be better educated and, thus, are also more likely to be informed about current and important events. Another reason minority and low-income players will be more affected in the years to come is that these communities are more likely to continue viewing football as an economic life raft and as unrefusable opportunities for themselves and their families in spite of the health risks. Additionally, as football players from affluent and educated areas decline, which they will based on projections, colleges will begin to more heavily target lower-income communities wielding the promise of opportunity, but also an unspoken higher percentage for chance of injury than percentage for the chance of making it to the pros.
But even with all of this, however, this is still America. We need our big stadium sport. Hence the angry, vocal opposition to the notion of changing and banning football. As far as a potential replacement sport goes, for various reasons it seems that soccer will just never take hold here and even though its popularity does seem to be growing, it’s just not our sport. This country needs something else. Sure, we can keep rule changing and stripping modern football down until it’s a tackle-less or bubble-wrapped sport, but I feel like the solution isn’t to soften the sport, but to change the sport of big time American focus. So what sport is American, safer than football, team-based, exciting, satisfies that primal lust for violence, and is played in a stadium?
There is in fact, no truer American sport, in the true meaning of the word, than lacrosse when you consider its origin.
The History of Lacrosse
According to the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL), Lacrosse was likely started by Native Americans of the St. Lawrence Valley area by the Algonquian tribe and they were followed by other tribes in the eastern half of North America, and around the western Great Lakes. Other sources suggest an even broader origin of the game with virtually all Eastern Woodlands Indigenous peoples playing the sport as well as Indigenous people of the Great Plains and Canadian Prairies. The game, originally called stickball, was would take place over several days, played over huge open areas between villages and the goals (trees or natural objects) which were anything from 500 yards to several miles apart, and sometimes with thousands of people playing! The rules were very simple, the ball was not to be touched by a player’s hand and there were no boundaries. The ball was tossed into the air to indicate the start of the game and players raced to be the first to catch it. The name “Lacrosse” came about from French Jesuit missionary, Jean de Brébeuf, who wrote about the game being played by the Huron Indians in 1636 and he is who coined the game’s name as “lacrosse”. These missionaries were working in the St. Lawrence Valley in the 1630s and were the first Europeans to see lacrosse being played. Modern lacrosse, of course, has been heavily modified by European colonizers.
Lacrosse is actually the National Sport of Canada, and the modern rules were codified by Canadian William George Beers in 1867, but there is no logical reason why the U.S. cannot grow to adopt lacrosse in the same manner, given that the Native American groups which played lacrosse originally existed throughout much of both the modern United States and Canada.
Modern Lacrosse’s United States popularity started during the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s, the exact same timeframe as college football’s inception and subsequent growth. It was primarily a regional sport centered around the Mid-Atlantic, especially New York and Maryland. Lacrosse spread to the rest of the United States in the latter half of the 20th Century where by then college football had already taken hold of the nation, with the blue bloods already well-established. So for whatever reason, despite its vibrant native history on the continent, lacrosse got a late start in the United States relative to football.
Field lacrosse, is the specific type of lacrosse that I am arguing on behalf of. Field Lacrosse is played on a 110 yard field, and is a full-contact, ten man sport (three attackmen, three midfielders, three defensemen, and one goalie), with players wearing helmets, gloves, shoulder pads, and elbow pads, and of course wielding a crosse (lacrosse stick) which range from 40 to 72 inches depending on the position. Lacrosse is actually the fastest growing high school team-sport according to a 2016 participation survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations. The image below demonstrates the field.
This Tweet from the Rutgers Men’s Lacrosse Twitter account demonstrates the the field positions.
#RUMLax starters are set.— Rutgers Men's LAX (@RUmlax) February 16, 2019
GK: Max Edelmann
D: Pless, Bullett, Stahanczyk
M: Rose, Gallagher, Sanguinetti
A: Mullins, Coyne, Charalambides
Michael Sanguinetti makes his first career start. Max Edelmann makes his first start of the season. pic.twitter.com/TNzAnQfAAj
Now yes, because Lacrosse is still a full-contact sport, it is not 100% safe from injury, hence the helmets and pads. However, the occurrence of overall injuries per 1,000 athletic exposures is about .25 for lacrosse compared to football’s .54 according to a 2007 publication in the Journal of Athletic Training. Additionally, the rate of reported concussions in lacrosse per 10,000 athletic exposures for high school is 6.2 compared to 11.2 for football according to a 2013 study.
So Lacrosse isn’t a dainty sport by any stretch, but it seems to be a damn good compromise given that it has almost all of American Football’s major aspects minus the high injury rate. Lacrosse even has the exact same fifteen minute quarters that football has.
“But I’m not into lacrosse”
Let me share how I got into football, because I can promise everyone I was not even slightly into football or any team sports prior to college. I was a tennis player. The origin of my current obsession with college football is my freshman year where I was “forced” to watch an entire season of Rutgers Football home games as a member of the marching band (2012... Yes, we were solid enough to get someone into football then). Before that, I hadn’t a care in the world about the sport, but with the exposure I bought into the hype. I could “see why people love this,” and now I do too. So much. In general, continued exposure is a great way to develop a taste for something. If I can develop a taste for whole grain bread by eating it every day, Americans can develop a taste for big time lacrosse. Therefore, I encourage you to watch a lacrosse game the next Saturday you have a chance. Since I’m writing this piece on a Big Ten blog which probably has the best top to bottom lacrosse league in the NCAA, I imagine many readers here already have a team that actually represents their fandom.
Lacrosse is a fun, dynamic sport with the same spirit as football in my opinion. Again it has so many boxes checked when comparing it to football (American origin, large team, large field, full-contact, four quarters) and also comes with the benefit of being a more guilt-free sport to watch. Knowing what I know about the link between permanent brain damage and other injuries and football, I have this growing feeling of guilt whenever I watch football as I work hard to shove that knowledge to the deepest realms of my subconscious to try to enjoy the game. But it’s still there, and it comes out a little more whenever a player gets injured. It’s there for all of us educated enough to trust and acknowledge the data. Watching lacrosse is much freer from such feelings and I don’t know about you, but this video below capturing the slow motion plays of an intense, close game is just as entertaining as any college football game. And look, lacrosse has cool helmets too.
This video below shows what live lacrosse is like and in particular captures some solid and exciting downfield movement.
I am envisioning an America where Lacrosse goes far beyond the NCAA. An America where the MLL (Major League Lacrosse) is on par with and eventually maybe even supersedes the NFL as the premiere professional sports league in the country, with new cities and states getting major league lacrosse teams. An America with tailgating outside a Lacrosse-focused stadium just like on any football game day. An America where kids from all backgrounds (as of right now, lacrosse is incredibly non-diverse) grow up wanting to be professional lacrosse players with the prospect of a lucrative career minus the brain damage, and without their parents having the same level of injury wariness as with football.
An America where Lacrosse supplants American Football for the purpose of societal welfare.
Zuzu is currently a PhD student in functional morphology and vertebrate paleontology. She has training in vertebrate anatomy and physiology and is passionate about the topic of the effect of sports and other extreme/unique physical conditions on the human body.