Op-Ed: CFL leads the way in player safety in banning contact practice

When Juan Trevino Jr. stepped onto the field for Lumberton High School (Texas) in August, it was his first taste of high school football. Just a few short weeks later, the 15-year-old was confined to a hospital bed with a life-threatening brain injury sustained during practice.

Trevino’s family told 12News that Trevino’s road to recovery could be very long after the freshman underwent brain surgery at the University of Texas Medical Center.

“Every day is a little bit of progress in a different way. He hasn’t opened his eyes yet but that’s what we’re waiting for him to do,” said Trevino’s aunt, Alicia Yokubaitis, to 12News in August.

The incident was the latest in a long string of substantial head injuries suffered by football players during practice. Just last week, the Boston University Alzheimer’s Center released the findings from a study of the brain of former tight end/convicted murderer, Aaron Hernandez. The former Patriot had signs of stage three (of four) of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy—the most advanced state ever observed in a player of Hernandez’s age, 27.

Dr. Ann McKee, BU’s chief neuropathologist, performed the autopsy and said of her findings, “Mr. Hernandez had early brain atrophy and large perforations in the septum pellucidium, a central membrane.” Furthermore, McKee noted that CTE has been associated with “aggressiveness, explosiveness, impulsivity, depression, memory loss, and other cognitive changes.”

While the NFL has been reluctant to acknowledge the negative effects of head injuries caused by contact to the head, the Canadian Football League took a welcome step forward last week when it announced an immediate end to contact in practice.

With its announcement on Sept. 13, the CFL became the first professional football league to ban padded practice and contact in practice while simultaneously acknowledging the negative effects of consistent hits to the head in practice.

The ban was a joint venture between the CFL and its players’ association. Commissioner Randy Ambrosie, who took over the job in July, shifted the league’s stance on concussions 180 degrees with the move—a welcome change from his predecessor, Jeffrey Orridge, who last year denied any link between football and the development of CTE.

The new policy came as the CFL faces a $200-million class-action lawsuit from former players over head injuries and brain trauma. Commissioner Ambrosie told Sports Illustrated last week that the future of football will be crafted by the decisions made now to make the game safer.

“We need to fight, literally, for the future of football, and we do that by making it safe,” Amrosie said to SI’s Peter King. “I think the battle for the future of the game is one we will win. We’re teaching safer tackling. It’s gonna take us all pushing it. Change is hard. We all know that. The fraternity of football people, we’ll find our way. I’m honored to be part of it.”

For former Concordia football star and current Edmonton Eskimo wide receiver Brandon Zylstra, the change comes with positives and negatives.

“I’m really kind of indifferent about the change,” Zylstra said. “A lot of players on the team were pumped, especially the linemen who have to go down and make a hit every play. I don’t mind it, and it gives the younger guys the chance to show what they can do without pads.”

In addition to the elimination of contact practices, the CFL also lengthened its regular season to include an extra bye week for each team—reducing the number of short weeks and increasing recovery time for players.

Stateside, the NFL was forced to acknowledge the link between blows to the head and long-term brain disease last year when it settled a class-action lawsuit against former players, who claimed the league knew the dangers of head injuries and withheld them from players, for $1 billion in compensation.

Over the last few seasons, the NFL has placed an emphasis on targeting penalties and general contact to the head, but the league still has a long way to go before it matches the CFL’s recovery schedule. Each CFL team has three bye weeks in the 20-week season; NFL teams have one bye in a 17-week schedule.

As the NFL continues to question widely-accepted science, the CFL took an active step forward to reduce the risk of injury for its players.

Commissioner Ambrosie has shown that his players are the first priority—something that can’t be said for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Zylstra says the positive changes are not going unnoticed.

“He’s done some good stuff,” Zylstra said. “He’s a former (Edmonton) Eskimo, so he’s someone a lot of guys can kind of relate to. He’s making a lot of good changes for player safety and the guys like the changes he’s made for the most part.”

Football will never be a safe sport, but if the NFL expects the general public to believe its supposed emphasis on player safety, it must follow the CFL’s lead.


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