Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ban football

NFL commish Roger Goodell testified in front of Congress Wednesday, about concussions and the league. Basically he said that a connection had not yet been established between head injuries on the field and brain disease in later life, while at the same time playing up the steps the league has taken in recent years. This of course is exactly what we expect the head guy to say. Meanwhile, the NY Times has a piece on the daughter of former Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse, who is also testifying before the committee. Gay Culverhouse is now 62yo, and her pursuit of this issue is nothing short of heroic. As the Grey Lady tells us, Culverhouse is trying to

“tell the truth about what’s going on while I still have the chance.” Culverhouse has blood cancer and renal failure and has been told she has six months to live. “I’ve got to see that someone stops this debacle before it gets any worse,” said Culverhouse, 62, the daughter of the former owner Hugh Culverhouse who held various executive positions from 1985 to 1994. “I watched our team do anything it could to get players back on the field. We have to make that right.” ...
“Telling the players that football has nothing to do with it is literally adding insult to injury,” Culverhouse said. “It’s a joke. It’s unconscionable.”
(I had never heard of Gay Culverhouse before, and now I feel that was my loss. This is a woman in sports who deserves a biographical treatment.)

The NFL gets all the headlines. But the NFL is not the real issue here. The most compelling discussion of head trauma in football players that I've read is the piece that James linked the other day, by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker: Football, dogfighting, and brain damage. There's a paragraph in the Gladwell piece that makes abundantly clear where the real issue lies:
McKee [Dr Ann McKee, who runs the neuropathology laboratory at the Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts] got up and walked across the corridor, back to her office. “There’s one last thing,” she said. She pulled out a large photographic blowup of a brain-tissue sample. “This is a kid. I’m not allowed to talk about how he died. He was a good student. This is his brain. He’s eighteen years old. He played football. He’d been playing football for a couple of years.” She pointed to a series of dark spots on the image, where the stain had marked the presence of something abnormal. “He’s got all this tau. This is frontal and this is insular. Very close to insular. Those same vulnerable regions.” This was a teen-ager, and already his brain showed the kind of decay that is usually associated with old age. “This is completely inappropriate,” she said. “You don’t see tau like this in an eighteen-year-old. You don’t see tau like this in a fifty-year-old.”
Forget legislating the NFL, for a minute. Those are grown men, and they are well-compensated for the risks they run. Maybe they're not fully educated about those risks, maybe they are: it's an issue that can be argued. Forget even college football for a minute. Those are legal adults too.

McKee is talking about evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in an 18-yr-old kid, who (probably) did not play a down of college football. She says that he played football “for a couple of years.” That's gotta be high school football, right? This is a guy who was exposed to the repetitive subconcussive trauma of high school practice (read thru the Gladwell piece to the part about the Sports Concussion Research Program at UNC). That was enough to create this condition in his brain.

It’s one thing to leave the NFL substantially alone: maybe throw some more money at the ex-players medical fund, improve the helmet technology, that kind of thing. Maybe even get bold, and have neurologists on the sidelines who are not in the employ of the teams, to judge whether guys can go back into the game or not. These are useful things to do: but they still leave the game as played essentially unchanged.

But high school football is played by 15- and 16- and 17-year-old children. Pop Warner is played by kids even younger. If football can be shown to cause brain damage in children – and not just the ferocity of game-day competition, but the routine subconcussive pops that every player gets every day in practice – then high school football and Pop Warner football must be banned.

I don't like it any better than you do. It seems obvious what would happen to pro and college football if there were no pool of high school players to draw upon. But what choice would there be? We don't let children buy cigarettes or alcohol either.

What we really need is a longitudinal study, along the lines of the Framingham Heart Study or the Nurses' Health Study, where every kid who plays high school football in some county or district (preferably in a hotbed like Pennsylvania or the states that are home to the SEC) is tracked over decades, with their brains evaluated after death where possible. God knows where the money for that would come from. The NFL sure as hell isn't going to fund it, because they can see what such a study would find.

Is there any choice but to ban youth and high school football?


  1. We are so cutting edge.

  2. Yep.

    The NFL, and even college, is a side issue. You banged right on the main issue in Feb: "If football is inherently dangerous then we are guilty of exposing minors to unnecessary risk."

  3. I think what startled my most about the Klosterman essay was the education on Teddy Roosevelt's interference in the rules of the game that ultimately paved the way for modern football. His interference was directly due to concerns that are relevant today, 100 years later. There is no particular reason to believe that rule changes - even dramatic ones - that would enhance the safety of the player would "ruin" the sport. It didn't ruin the sport the last time

  4. I think the NFL/other could ban all hits leading with the head. [and at the head which is already illegal. Autoban violators - like Steroid Rodney H]

    Guys would prolly tackle better anyway leading with shoulder and forcing themselves to wrap up imo.


  5. You'd better ban driving as well. The average high school football player is 370 times more likely to die in a car accident than playing football:


About This Blog

Twitter: oblong_spheroid

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP