Leonard Zwelling


America’s infatuation with football is as ubiquitous as is its infatuation with guns.

ESPN’s SportsCenter never stops showing football. In the middle of May and June when the NBA and NHL are deep into playoffs and baseball and golf and tennis are having important contests, football still dominates the sports news on the all-sports network. Why?

The simple answer is that football has become America’s national past time, supplanting baseball a number of years ago. I am not even sure baseball is second. I think the NBA is bigger.

Regardless, football is big business and makes billions for the owners and the NFL. Fine. But what about the game itself? Should a civilized society tolerate a sport whose major attraction is violence?

As a physician, I have been troubled by football for quite some time. The studies clearly show the relationship between playing the game and brain injuries that lead to long-term sequela like dementia. The pathologic etiology is clear (see the film Concussion and the attached article from The New York Times). The great film North Dallas Forty starring Nick Nolte based on the even better novel by former Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent illustrates the price almost all players pay for their rather short careers in high school, college and pro football. Every limb is damaged and every back destroyed. The physical, mental, and emotional toll of football appears to exceed the benefit derived from playing. Most of the players could easily excel at other sports and many did. Do they really need to sacrifice their bodies and minds for the pleasure of Joe Six Pack?

The answer is clearly yes, but things are getting out of hand.

A Buffalo Bill player literally died on the field last year. He was revived and is now back playing. How nuts is that!

This past weekend, two additional players were carted off the field on stretchers. They too will be back. And on it goes.

I played a lot of football when I was young, but most of it was two-hand touch. It has all the running and passing and catching and defense of tackle football, but no one usually got really hurt. (Truth be told the future chief of orthopedic surgery at Vanderbilt did break my nose playing touch football in medical school, but I survived and am not yet brain dead).

Do I think today’s football fans would go for watching (or betting on) two-hand touch? No way. The NFL is here to stay until the toll gets great enough and parents simply stop allowing their sons to play the game. We are far from that as yet.

Football strikes me as the only game of which I am aware where hitting an opponent without him knowing it is considered a good play. There would never be a blind side if a quarterback couldn’t be hit when he wasn’t looking and goodness knows what has happened to myriad knees and elbows on the offensive line and in piles after a tackle.

No, I have become convinced that football as we know it at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels is really a medical liability of mammoth proportions. Lots and lots of people get hurt playing football and if anything else was taking this many young victims it would be banned.

I know we can’t ban football and I hear the argument that the players know what they are getting into. But, do they? Kids start playing tackle football by the time they are twelve. Can a twelve-year-old really decide what is good for him? I think not.

Parents ought to be provided with an informed consent document advising them in writing of the risks of allowing their sons to play this game and the same ought to take place at the college level. The pros are all big boys and they know the risks but choose to play anyway.

I think the country ought to think hard about how it made football the national game and what it says about us. How different from gladiatorial combat is the NFL? Not much.

Our national game is hand to hand combat with armored men capable of tremendous speed generating massive force. The body was not made to take this punishment. Football is bad but I am sure of one thing, despite what the NFL says, there is no way to make professional football safe or even safer. It is what it is. War. The casualties suggest that this is no exaggeration.

Dr. Zwelling’s new novel, Conflict of Interest: Money Drives Medicine and People Die is available at:,

on amazon if you search using the title and subtitle,


directly from the publisher Dorrance at:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *