On September 19, with just a few minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of a Division II college game in Texas, a 19-year-old sophomore cornerback from Midwestern State University named Robert Grays attempted to tackle his opponent. Instead of walking off the field to celebrate an almost assured victory—his team led 35 to 13—Grays was evacuated on an ambulance. He later died from a severe neck injury resulting from the play, according to ESPN.
The tragedy is the latest, and most severe, example of an already obvious truth: contact sports, in particular football, are dangerous. But just how dangerous? And how much is that danger impacting the U.S. economy?
Researchers from Yale University attempted to find out, publishing a paper that examines a large swath of data from male high school and collegiate athletics.
As reported by the New York Times, the authors’ findings estimate the price of contact sports injuries—from football, wrestling, basketball, and soccer—could exceed $20 billion a year as compared to non-contact sports—like baseball, tennis, and track and field. Additionally, the paper concludes that if the rules for contact sports changed to become non-contact, total injuries each year for high school and college men would decrease by more than 650,000.
High school sports accounted for the largest contribution to both cost and injury rate, which the authors point out, is because opportunities to play are significantly higher at the lower level. The paper estimates high school contact sports are responsible for up to $19.2 billion yearly and 600,000 more annual injuries.
The most dangerous contact sport for high schoolers is not surprising: football. The data estimates concussions occur nine times more often on the gridiron than during non-contact sports. In college, wrestling accounted for a higher injury-rate than football, though the injury rate for both sports more than doubled from high school to college.
Ray Fair, the paper’s senior author and a professor of economics at Yale, told the New York Times, “The issue really is that contact is the driving force in all these major injuries.” He also said he would never allow his own children or grandchildren to compete in contact sports.
Part of that reasoning may stem from a larger issue that the data was unable to measure: the cost of long-term injuries, be it multiple concussions or arthritis brought on by repeated bone and tendon trauma.
The paper concludes by pointing out perhaps its largest flaw, saying, “People obviously differ on the weights they place on the costs and benefits of contact sports. For example, changing football to be a non-contact sport would be a large change in the sports culture in the United States.”
That’s academic speak for: replacing pads with flags just isn’t as fun. Which means, for better (or for worse) things likely aren’t going to change any time soon.