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Football and Brain Trauma

October 27, 2009

by Charlie Sprague
Football and Brain Trauma

The Stags football team is a solid 3-3 this year.  I wish them the best for the rest of the season, but what concerns me even more is the long-term neurological health of the players, particularly the linemen.

Malcom Gladwell’s provocative New Yorker article“Offensive Play: How different are dogfighting and football?” makes quite a bold comparison, as the title suggests.  I’m not going to defend the comparison because I think the issue of consent makes all the difference in the world.  Even if one ignores the wrongheaded comparision, however, Gladwell’s article is worth reading because of its insightful and disturbing coverage of the neurological damage suffered by football players.  In particular, the descriptions of ex-NFL athletes who have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive neurological disorder caused by repeated brain trauma, is harrowing.  Thankfully, the risks of concussions have received considerable media attention and have made athletes,  coaches, and trainers more aware of the difficult ethical question involved in deciding how many concussions should a player suffer before he calls it quits.

The neurological dangers associated with football, however, are not limited to the highly visible incidents of concussion.  As Gladwell writes,

"A football player’s real issue isn’t simply with repetitive concussive trauma. It is, as the concussion specialist Robert Cantu argues, with repetitive subconcussive trauma. It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too."

If these little hits can add up to damage as well, football players at all levels of play may be suffering ongoing brain trauma without even realizing it.  Data that comes from examining the University of North Carolina’s football team suggests that in an average football season, a linemen could get struck in the head a thousand times.  Thankfully, Division III football most likely involves fewer such blows to the head, but by how much is anyone’s guess.  These hits matter because Cantu says that people with CTE “aren’t necessarily people with a high, recognized concussion history. But they are individuals who collided heads on every play—repetitively doing this, year after year, under levels that were tolerable for them to continue to play.”

I believe the dangers associated with college football should not be underestimated, but it seems plainly obvious that the degree of risk assumed by the sport is comparable to other popular activities on campus.  Basketball, softball, soccer, baseball, and rugby all have moderate-to-high incidences of concussion.  Furthermore, as the number of serious alcohol poisonings at CMC can attest, irresponsible partying on the weekend could very well be considerably more dangerous than college football.  Clearly, CMC students could very reasonably decide that engaging in a sport they love is worth the expected danger.

What the high incidence of brain damage should make us wonder, however, is why our society so strongly encourages young men to join the sport in the first place.  I love football as much as the next college male and this article was inspired after the agony of following the 49ers defeat to the Texans on Sunday.  At the same time, I very much wish that I had been given more information about the dangers of the sport before I played high school football.  At least in my experience growing up, parents, peers, coaches, and trainers simply never discussed the neurological dangers associated with subconcussive trauma that are inherent in the game (ignorance of the issue is most likely an important factor here).  Furthermore, given that one study found that the greatest incidence of concussion was at the high school and collegiate division III  levels, we should not fall into the trap of thinking that only multi-million dollar star athletes are exposing themselves to serious risk.  Football is a beloved American institution and I don’t expect it to decline in popularity anytime soon, but as a society let us at least be realistic about the dangers of the sport and maybe be a little more proactive in telling our children about those dangers.

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