Football's Most Dangerous Practice

Practice makes perfect head injuries.

Photographer: Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

For the National Football League, the news on head injuries gets worse and worse. New research that examined the brains of 91 deceased football players found signs of a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in 96 percent of them. This is in line with much other evidence that the hazards of professional football extend well into players' retirement. 

Notably, the study also found that 40 percent of the afflicted had been linemen, players who get hit on almost every play. This bolsters previous evidence that repeated minor blows to the head could be more dangerous, over the long term, than the single violent hits that get more attention. And it confirms that confronting CTE will require ambitious changes to football programs at every level. 

The place to start is with practice. Over the course of their athletic lives, players sustain far more hits in practice than on game day. That's why the NFL Players Association demanded, in 2011, that the league limit full-contact practices to an average of once per week. College and high-school football programs should follow their lead. 

The NCAA recommends that schools limit full-contact practices, and some athletic conferences have made such limits mandatory. But that's not enough, especially given other research showing that blows to the head can impede academic performance. The NCAA needs to make its limit mandatory nationwide. 

State legislatures should do the same for all high-school and middle-school teams, and require training programs for coaches to reduce concussions. Many of their young players may have no intention of playing at a higher level, but a single season of high-school football can lead to brain abnormalities. 

Related: More Evidence of Football's Destructiveness

It's true that limiting contact will make it harder to teach the fundamentals of the game. Yet the NFL shows no discernable decline in the quality of play since it did so. In any case, protecting kids from brain injuries is more important than perfecting their tackling techniques. 

Technology should also help. Researchers are working on helmets with a chemical strip that lights up if a blow has been hard enough to cause a concussion. This could alleviate two persistent problems in youth football: Too many coaches can't recognize the symptoms of concussion, and kids are often loath to admit an injury and take themselves out of a game. Other helmets can track the number of hits a player sustains over the course of a season. As such technology advances, it should be possible to determine what number of hits constitutes a danger zone for brain injury, and limit players to a set number for the year. 

Football is inherently violent, and none of these steps will prevent all injuries. But coaches and officials need to understand how dangerous hits to the head can be -- and do everything possible to mitigate the damage. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.