Don’t Blame Contact Sports
May 22, 2012 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
Earlier this month, I wrote about Junior Seau and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), arguing that organizations like the NFL need to do more to protect players from concussions and other head trauma. But I also believe that the dangers of contact sports are often over-stated, especially in the non-sports media. Conversely, the dangers of non-contact sports are routinely under-stated.
For instance, most people consider cycling to be vanilla and safe. But in Stage 3 of last year's Giro d'Italia, Belgium's Wouter Weylandt died following a downhill crash. The day before Stage 3 of this year's Giro, the mayor of Horsens, Denmark, had a fatal heart attack during a bicycle race to celebrate the Giro's visit to his town. In Stage 3 itself, with the cyclists sprinting toward the finish at close to 40 miles per hour, a reckless move by Roberto Ferrari caused a huge crash that knocked Stage 2 winner Mark Cavendish to the street, where he was run over by another rider and toppled a dozen others, including race leader Taylor Phinney.
This year's Giro has seen a significant crash almost every time there's been a sprint finish. These guys are traveling upwards of 30 miles an hour and all they have for protection is a bike helmet. Basically, it's the equivalent of a medium-speed motorcycle crash. That's happened four times in this year's race. U.S. announcer Todd Gogulski said during Stage 7, "It's part of the game of being a professional cyclist, is getting injured."
What about something like downhill skiing? I know some fans have trouble with the distinction between contact sports like football, where collisions are deliberately part of the sport, and racing, where crashes only happen when something goes wrong. But something always goes wrong. It's ridiculous to pretend we can hold major cycling, skiing, and auto races without crashes. They are an inevitable by-product of competition. And when collisions occur in those sports, they are far more dangerous than a tackle in a football game or a punch in a boxing ring.
The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research uses the term catastrophic injury to distinguish life-threatening or permanently life-altering injuries, such as paralysis. NCCSI's data includes both direct injuries (like Weylandt's fatal crash at last year's Giro) and indirect injuries (like the mayor's heart attack, a systemic failure as a result of exertion, at this year's).
Contact sports get a reputation as dangerous because we can see the violence; high-speed collisions and blows to the head are a fundamental part of the sport. That's true. But it's only part of the story. Looking at all levels of competition (not just the NFL), at least one fatality occurs in football almost every year. But the majority of these are indirect, and have little or nothing to do with getting hit. During the past ten years there have been 29 heat stroke deaths in football. That's a huge problem, but it's not because these guys are getting tackled. From the standpoint of permanent injury and death, contact may be the least dangerous aspect of the sport. And while direct injuries are more common in contact sports, the accidental injuries in other sports are usually far more dangerous. To argue that contact sports are uniquely dangerous is simply false.
Strange as it may sound, the most dangerous sport in the U.S. is probably competitive cheerleading. Cheerleaders make up about 3% of all female high school athletes in the United States, but account for approximately 65% of their catastrophic injuries. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that cheerleading leads to about 25,000 emergency room visits annually. In the last 20 years, at least 18 college and high school cheerleaders have died in competition. Figures from the NCAA's insurance program suggest that a cheerleader is roughly eight times as likely to suffer major injury as a college football player.
CPSC data shows that of the 25,966 cheerleading emergency room visits in 2006, over 20% of them involved head, neck, or facial injuries — including 1,070 concussions, 75 head or neck fractures, and 1,157 internal injuries. Cheerleading is not a contact sport, but accidents happen. Name a sport you think of as safe, and there are counter-examples to show it can be dangerous. How about high school girls' basketball? Over the last 30 years, NCCSI has recorded 16 fatalities, all indirect. Track and field? In 2010, a high school athlete was hit in the face by a discus, and two college pole vaulters died when they landed or bounced out of the pit area. In 2009, two high school cross-country runners died from heart and heat problems.
The numbers above are from NCCSI's 2010 report, which frankly is terrifying. Most athletes never suffer a catastrophic injury, but there's no such thing as a "safe" sport. Baseball? Head-first slides, beanings, and balls hit at the pitcher can cause head and neck injuries. Soccer? NCCSI reports, "Since 1998 there have been at least seven deaths and another 1,800 kids treated in emergency rooms because of injuries from movable soccer goals." There is also growing concern about concussions in soccer, mostly from head-to-head contact with other players or participants striking their heads on the ground or goalposts. Gymnastics? Many of the same risks as cheerleading.
I'm not trying to pretend that contact sports like football, ice hockey, boxing, and MMA can't be dangerous. Of course they can. CTE should be a serious concern for anyone involved in those sports, and this is a condition linked with limited neurological capacity, significant personality changes, and major depression. There's a lot of progress that still needs to be made in addressing head trauma and brain damage in these sports. But arguing that these activities should be banned doesn't make sense. Ultimately, modern contact sports aren't much more dangerous than non-contact sports.
Many of the most serious catastrophic injuries are indirect, things like heart failure, heat stroke, and seizure. Those aren't unique to football, or to any contact sport. Devastating accidents can happen in any event, and just because they're accidents doesn't mean they aren't part of the sport. Ultimately, the only way to guarantee no one gets hurt is not to do anything athletic, and we can all die from obesity-related problems when we turn 30.
Contact sports can be dangerous, but we need to make them safer, not get rid of them. That applies to everything we do.