One recent survey shows that football is violent – there’s really no debating that. But how violent? We tend to scale such things based on our values and beliefs. Is it too violent to let your kids play? Check. Too violent to play yourself? Hmm … maybe powderpuff is okay. Too violent to watch or participate in by proxy? Hey, man, you are not taking away my fantasy football.
A reasoned discussion on the violence in American football is not new. As early as 1905, in response to the many deaths occurring to players in the college game at the time, President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a boxer at Harvard, forced the NCAA to change the rules to make football safer for its players.
In our era, deaths in American football at any level – youth through professional – are actually fairly rare, per capita. The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research noted that an average of 12 football athletes (high school and college) die each year out of roughly 1.2 million total participants. For you math fans, that equates to roughly a 0.001 percent death rate, or one death per 100,000 participants. Compare that to the deadliest sport in America – pole vaulting – with a death rate of 0.004 percent (one death per 25,000 participants).
Did you catch that? You’re four times more likely to die pole vaulting than playing football. For comparison sake, the death rate from cancer is roughly one in 500 (0.2 percent).
Interestingly, from 1990-2010, a total of 243 football deaths occurred in practices and games, but 100 of the fatalities, a full 41 percent, were attributed to underlying previously undiagnosed heart conditions, meaning that it wasn’t necessarily football that killed them, but rather the vigorous exertion that could be found in any number of physical activities.
But what about injuries that do not lead to death? This is where the real problem lies. The National Athletic Trainers Association found that for middle school athletes, there are 16 injuries per 1,000 exposures. An exposure is any opportunity for an injury to occur – practice, games or training. Any one athlete could have five or more exposures per week in middle school, with possibly 50-75 exposures per season.
For all age groups, researchers have found that there are about 500,000 football related injuries per year, reportedly twice as many as any other sport. More than 50 percent occur to the lower extremities, with knee injuries making up 36% of all football injuries; over half of which sideline the athlete for 10 days or more and four out of five require surgery. There is an estimated 25,000 ankle sprains per week. Finally, 60-75 concussions occur per 1,000 exposures.
With all of this data in mind, I return to my original question – how violent is too violent? Well, I’m not giving up my fantasy football teams (who are overall 2-7 this season … sheesh), and I will continue to officiate powderpuff and advocate for its participation.
But my children will not be playing football.
Matthew Ruiz, Ph.D., is the associate professor of exercise science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column reflects the views of the writer only.