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Is football too dangerous?

TIME.com—September 12, 2007

The life threatening spinal-cord injury that Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett suffered on Sunday while trying to make a tackle adds urgency to a question that gnaws at the NFL with each passing season — is playing pro football worth the risks?

Everett may have damaged his spine in the way he dove in for his tackle, with a move known as spearing, in which a player contacts his opponent head first. Because the head and spine are aligned, in this position the spine tends to bear the brunt of the blow, which is why the National Collegiate Athletic Association banned spear tackling in 1976. Beginning in grade school, players are now taught to keep their head up during a tackle, and a sign reminding players to "SEE WHAT YOU HIT!" hangs in every NFL locker room. "I played 20 years ago in high school, and my coaches really pounded home the need for good form, to keep the head up to maintain the curvature of the head and spine to dissipate any forces from impact," says Andrew Sama, M.D., spinal surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. "But everything happens so fast on the field, all it takes is a tiny change in head position to get you in trouble."

It doesn't help that today's players are also bigger, faster and stronger, which means that each impact packs more punch. Since 1985, the average weight of NFL players has ballooned 10%, to 248 pounds, according to a recent study by Scripps Howard News Service. The heaviest position, offensive tackle, has gone from 281 pounds two decades ago to 318 pounds today. So, the dozens of high-speed hits that happen every game carry a higher likelihood of potentially hazardous results. While catastrophic injuries like Everett's remain rare, reports of concussions and other severe trauma on the football field are starting to pile up even at the high school and college level. In a study of high school and college football players published last summer, the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine found that between 1989 and 2002, on average of six players per year became quadriplegic after an injury on the field. Even more alarming was the cause of these catastrophic injuries — spear tackling. "Especially on a kickoff or punt return, the whole purpose is to just collide with your opponent, to take somebody out," notes Sama. "And when you have athletes at the top of their game going full force, unfortunately these things happen."

Read the full story at TIME.com.


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