Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Maybe College Football Should Take a Hike

     In my town the high-school football team began its summer "workouts" last week. The early morning practices, starting at 6 a.m., will continue three times a week for the rest of the summer. The team plays its first game on Sept. 7.

     I don't live in a big football town -- nothing like what you find in Texas or Georgia. Most of the players on our high-school team will never play in college. The very best of them will play varsity football at low-level Division III schools like Muhlenberg, Kenyon or Middlebury.

     Yet football is ingrained into our culture. The game creates an enormous amount of school spirit. So what are we to make of the anti-football argument made by Malcolm Gladwell?

     On Sunday I saw the popular writer of such science books as The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, being interviewed on CNN by Fareed Zakaria. Gladwell is on a campaign to ban college football on the premise that the sport is too violent and too often leads to debilitating brain injuries in its young players. In a controversial New Yorker article from a few years ago he compared football to dog fighting.

     Gladwell cites research saying the head injuries football players routinely suffer during practices and games often lead to serious neurological disorders. There have been instances where the repeated head trauma has been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease found in former college and professional football players, as well as former boxers and hockey players.

     He cited the case of Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania football player who committed suicide in 2010. His autopsy showed early stages of CTE -- just as autopsies showed CTE in former professional players like Dave Duerson and Junior Seau who also committed suicide.

     Gladwell did not address the issue of professional football. Perhaps a professional player, as an adult, can make the decision to take on the risk of CTE as the price that has to be paid for the job. After all, police and firefighters and truck drivers and construction workers also risk injury and even death in order to do their jobs.

     What Gladwell questions is why our institutions of higher learning, which are dedicated to developing and improving the minds of our young people, are sponsoring a game that is shown to produce exactly the opposite results. How can a leading university like Penn teach its students advanced science and literature courses in the morning, then send those same kids out to suffer brain injury in the afternoon?

     Of course, anyone who plays any sport takes on a risk of injury. But track or tennis, or swimming or soccer or baseball, are not violent contact sports that involve repeated trauma to the head. They may result in a torn ligament or stress injury -- or there can always be a terrible accident -- but they don't require the constant violent contact that predictably brings on a debilitating and perhaps fatal brain disease.

     Like I said, I don't know what to make of Gladwell's argument. I don't know if Division III football carries the same risk of injury that goes along with football in the Big Ten or the Pac 12. And as far as the big state schools go, can you imagine Penn State or Notre Dame or Florida or Oklahoma giving up its football program? The alumni would go crazy!

     Big-time college football serves as a minor league for professional football. It brings in big money to the big schools. Some would argue that football scholarships give underprivileged kids an educational opportunity they otherwise would never have. But is the college football team really a part of the academic program of a state university, or are these football players essentially hired guns who major in physical education, rarely show up in class, and have nothing to do with the rest of the student body?

     I don't pretend to know the answers. I do know that there are a number of top schools that manage without a football team:  Boston University, New York University, George Washington University, as well as small colleges like Swarthmore and Haverford.

     Anyway, as the college football season soon swings into action, perhaps we should ask ourselves the obvious questions: Should universities really be in the business of producing football players? And are those bulked-up 300-pound kids being given an opportunity, or are they being exploited?


13 comments: said...

An evil game. Our local guy RGII had his knee ruined by an unscupulous play last year. Dianne

Don said...

Yes, it is time for school sponsored football to go! ALL school sponsored football--high school and college. I grew up in Alabama and lived most of my adult life in Georgia and I never "got it" about football. I suspect that most of the guys don't really love it that much it was just that there wasn't much else to do and it brought "local fame". (As a 60 year old male raised in the deep South I can say that with some credibility.) Some things are changing. Most larger towns in the South now have quite a few more sports for young guys to play.

Stephen Hayes said...

Count me among those who believe too much emphasis is placed on college sports. As a country we're falling behind academically and math and science should get more attention than football.

Dick Klade said...

The University of Chicago does fairly well, also, without football. College ball has become so professional that it is high time for the universities to give serious thought to dropping it.

Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Douglas said...

Most kids who grow up to play football start out in PeeWee leagues, advance to junior varsity and then varsity. By the time they get to college, they've been playing the game for 10 or more years. Junior Seau, for instance, was one of these. The accumulation of injuries has got to take a toll on these kids (and men when the get to college and the pro leagues). My son learned quickly that he did not have the background knowledge needed to even get on the junior varsity team in high school... though he was a pretty big, aggressive, guy by then. he knew the risks, understood the potential injuries too. Outlawing the game won't do anything except take that sport out of the picture. Maybe we should get rid of all contact sports (basketball, hockey, Lacrosse, baseball, wrestling, boxing, etc.) Or maybe we could just wrap kids up in bubble wrap until they are out of the house.

I blame the improvements in protective gear for football players. You can hit harder when you think you are invincible and protected. Maybe we ought to go back to just shoulder pads and leather helmets.

DJan said...

I have never been a fan of football. But it's part and parcel of our country's academic world. I don't think it's going away, but that doesn't mean it's right. Good thoughtful discussion, Tom.

Olga said...

Football was dropped from many VT high schools as a way to save money years ago. The response was swift--parent and community sponsored fund raising to keep the sport going. I think it is not so much the sport as the emphasis on winning at all costs (which can infect all kinds of activities) that is the real problem.

Anonymous said...

I've never understood why a university should be involved in any team sport in modern times. They would dry up pretty quickly if alums didn't get so het up.

Our local state U was kicked out of some league (or had some infraction sanctioned - I don't recall) and hasn't had a football team for nearly 30 years. There are a few well-heeled people who rabble rouse about starting up the program, again; but, the new president is an engineer. Perhaps he will hold the fort.
Cop Car

Bob Lowry said...

I never really gave this much thought until your post. I know Arizona State, whose football program makes millions of dollars, helps make up the shortfall caused by legislative cuts.

But, the injuries, both short and long term, are a problem that can't be ignored.

Friko said...

No idea.

There needs to be some reputable research into this particular sport and its possible effects on players.

But, so long as money and ambition are involved, whatever the outcome of any research, you won’t ban it.

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