College Football Season Is Here. Will Universities Continue To Ignore The Risk Of Brain Damage?

American football players during a tackle.

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For those of us in academia, September means a new school year, and all of the excitement and energy that students bring as they return to campus. Strolling around, you can feel the energy in the air.

September is also the beginning of the college football season (in the U.S.). For many students, alumni, and other fans, watching the game each week is one more fall activity they look forward to.

But now, thanks to a rapidly growing body of new research, we know that football can severely harm and even kill its players. Not right away, but years later, through a brain disease called CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This is a frightening disorder that gradually destroys brain cells, causing memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and progressive dementia. Many former players die very young, in their 40s or 50s, after first suffering for years.

CTE is caused by repeated blows to the head, events that are common to football. It has grown worse in recent decades as the players have gotten bigger and stronger. Improvements in helmet technology haven’t helped, and they might even have made CTE even worse, because the helmets allowed players (by their own admission) to use their heads as battering rams.

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Two years ago now, a large medical study of football players’ brains showed that an appallingly high percentage of those players had CTE. In that study, Boston University scientists led by Jesse Mez and Ann McKee found CTE in the brains of 110 out of 111 former NFL players (99%), and 48 out of 53 college players (91%).

As the BU scientists themselves pointed out, the former players and their families may have suspected something was wrong, and that may have motivated them to participate in the study. Thus the extremely high proportion of deceased players showing CTE in this study is certainly an overestimate. But as I wrote at the time:

“is it okay to ask young men to play football if the risk of permanent brain damage is only 50%? What if it’s just 10 or 20%? Is that okay? Is football that important?”

Clearly, the answer should be no. University presidents are constantly, even obsessively, worrying about the safety of their students. Campuses have many programs in place to protect students from crime, from sexual harrassment, from emotional distress, and more. And yet every fall, they willingly–no, enthusiastically–subject the 100 or so students on their football teams to a serious risk of lifelong, life-threatening brain damage. This simply should end.

For an especially poignant story, watch this short video about Greg Ploetz, who played on the 1969 national championship football team at the University of Texas, and who died in 2015 after years of worsening dementia:

As his daughter says in the video,

“If [today’s football players] knew what he went through, and what we went through as a family, there’s no way that people would decide to keep playing.”

Perhaps universities could take a cue from former Baltimore Ravens player John Urschel, widely considered the smartest player in the NFL, who was pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT while simultaneously playing pro football. Two years ago, Urschel quit, because he was worried that brain damage would destroy his ability to think clearly. And just one week ago, Indianapolis Colts’ star quarterback Andrew Luck retired early because football had “wrecked his body and stolen his joy.”

Brain damage may be happening to much younger players too. A study from the University of Washington last year found that 5% of youth football players aged 5-14 had experienced concussions each season. Three years ago, a mother sued the Pop Warner youth football organization after her son committed suicide at age 25. An autopsy showed that he had CTE, and the mother argued that his brain damaged was caused by his years playing youth football. The Pop Warner organization settled the suit for close to $2 million, but other lawsuits have been filed since.

As I and others have written, football and its promise of big-money television contracts has corrupted our universities. While universities build ever-bigger football stadiums and pay coaches exhorbitant salaries, they force the players to play for free. Now we know that players face a much more direct threat: long-term brain damage.

Let me ask university presidents this question as bluntly as I can: how much brain damage is acceptable for your football players? If your answer is “none,” then it’s time to get football out of our universities.

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