03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Not Caused By The Game": the Costs of Taking a Tackle in 1896 and 2009

"Dementia Risk Seen in Players in N.F.L. Study," The New York Times, Sept. 30, 2009:

A study commissioned by the National Football League reports that Alzheimer's disease or similar memory-related diseases appear to have been diagnosed in the league's former players vastly more often than in the national population--including a rate of 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49.

The N.F.L. has long denied the existence of reliable data about cognitive decline among its players. These numbers would become the league's first public affirmation of any connection, though the league pointed to limitations of this study.

The findings could ring loud at the youth and college levels [...]

Football, by Walter Camp and Lorin F. Deland, 1896.
Yale's first head football coach, Walter Camp is today known as the Father of American Football.

A Comparison with Other Sports. It must be conceded that the maxim of "nothing venture, nothing have" applies to football, as to all other sports. The increased bodily vigor must be purchased by bodily activity, and this involves a certain degree of bodily risk. Yet the injuries in football have been greatly overestimated by the newspapers, and are much misunderstood by the public. It can be proved that there is an equal element of danger in most sports and pastimes, just as there is a chance of injury in many of the simplest daily duties and occupations. There have been serious injuries from the feminine games of croquet and tennis; while the accidents from such legitimate amusements as bowling, sailing, baseball, cricket, rowing, horseback riding, coasting, shooting, swimming, lacrosse, and golf are in quite large proportion to the number of those engaged in them. What man is there who has not, as a boy, suffered accidents in such amusements? To prove that football is a dangerous pastime, it is first necessary to prove that not only is the proportion of accidents in football in excess of those in other sports, but that such accidents are necessarily incidental to football as it is played at the leading colleges of the country.

The Real Source of Danger. It must be borne in mind that the liability to injury in football increases in proportion to the youth of the player, his inexperience, and the lack of intelligent precautions, with the absence of proper methods of training. No young man is fit to play football until he has been thoroughly coached, and knows how to attempt the various movements he may be called upon to perform, in a way which shall not be harmful to him. When properly coached, he may, without the slightest risk, do many things which would be distinctly dangerous for one who had not had the benefit of this instruction.

An Exaggeration. One other point must not be overlooked. Football has been prominently before the public eye; it has been a bone of contention, and has aroused exaggerated feeling in both parties to the conflict. In all this dispute the law of proportion has been as much violated as in the public discussion of certain rare and exceptional diseases (as hydrophobia), which have both here and abroad led to most extraordinary legislation, with many remarkable schemes and propositions for relief, although the disease itself has been so rare that it does not figure as a cause of death in the statistics of any great city of the world.

Possible Injuries to the Nervous System. There is, however, a form of injury to the nervous system which may be occasioned by violent physical or nervous shock; and it is proper that we should look closely at football and determine whether the player is liable to such injury from the severe blow occasioned by the collision of two players, or the violent throwing of a player to the ground. This attitude of the question has been quite carefully examined by Dr. Morton Prince, of Boston, and the result of his investigations is here communicated, under date of May 8, 1896, as follows:--

I am very glad, in response to your request, to give you the results of my inquiries into possible injuries to the nervous system from football playing. My inquiries have been directed into a special class of injuries. You must know that persons who are subjected to violent concussions, physical and nervous shocks (whether the shock be slight or severe) are liable to suffer from certain nervous accidents which are technically known as traumatic neuroses; they used to be called spinal concussion and "railway spine," the latter term being derived from the fact that such injuries are very common after railroad accidents. They may follow almost any accident in which there has been a severe physical or psychical shock. For example, they frequently are caused by falling from a height, or tumbling down steps, or indeed simply slipping and tumbling backward on to the ground; they are not uncommon as a result of carriage accidents, collision, etc., etc.

So common are these accidents that the courts are full of cases which are the subject of litigation in the matter of damages.

The symptoms which are most commonly met with in such cases are: paralysis of the arms and legs, or both; loss of sensation in different parts of the body; impairment or loss of sight; severe pains, generally located in the region which was the seat of the blow; general prostration; and various mental disturbances of different kinds, such as inability to apply the mind, irritability, loss of mental control and emotion. There are numerous other symptoms of this disease, it is unnecessary to detail them further here.

These injuries to the nervous system may be very severe, completely disabling the injured person, and may last for many years. It occurred to me that if the generally accepted view regarding the exciting cause of these accidents be true, they should be common among football players. Any one who has watched a game must have been struck with the great momentum with which players frequently strike the ground or come together, and the severe blows that, in consequence, are inflicted on all parts of the body. The physical blow resulting from a man weighing 160 pounds being thrown to the ground when running at full speed, or when two such players collide, must be tremendous. It must far exceed the shock inflicted in many railway accidents, where, for example, a passenger may be simply thrown out of his seat, without any external injury being inflicted upon him; and yet that passenger may afterwards suffer from extreme nervous injuries of the kind I have above described.

With a view to determining whether such injuries may result from football accidents, I wrote the attending surgeons, or those in charge of the principal football teams of the country, asking whether they had ever known a player to suffer from a traumatic neurosis as a result of a football accident.

All my correspondents stated that they had never seen any injury of the kind I have described from football accidents. I may further state that, while I myself have seen a great many injuries of the kind resulting from all sorts of accidents, I have never seen a single case which was due to football playing. From this evidence I think there is little doubt that whatever may result from football playing, traumatic neuroses are not caused by the game.

Yours truly,