If football is going to exist in 50 years, we are going to need to solve the problem of brain trauma. Five high school players have died this year from head injuries. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to repetitive brain trauma, has so far been found in the brains of more than 100 deceased ex-NFL players. As popular as the NFL might be, this crisis is shaking its foundations. In April, a Harris Poll of 2,012 adult Americans found that 89% believed concussions were a moderate to severe health concern, and 25% would not let their children play some contact sports because of a fear of concussions. History, though, offers football fans a glimmer of hope. Back in the 1900s, football survived a similar existential crisis. Players were being crushed and were dying from head trauma. On the East Coast, Columbia abolished football and Harvard threatened to do the same. On the West Coast, Berkeley and Stanford switched out football for rugby. But radical changes—including the forward pass—saved the game. And less than two decades later, the NFL was born.
So can today’s league solve the concussion problem? Not exactly, says Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, and associate director of Harvard’s Football Players Health Study. “Concussions have been around for a long time, since the stone age probably,” he says. “There’s nothing new about concussions.” The injury is a natural consequence of impact, and as long as football remains a contact sport, players will still suffer concussions.