Column: Serious Risk Of Head Trauma Forces Questioning Of College Football Fanaticism
Published: Sunday, September 9, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
The stadium is roaring. Some fans have just seen through the completion of athletic eclat. Others are abandoning casual conversations with friends to look down onto the field and see what happened, cheering just the same so not to seem out of place. The opposing quarterback, exposed by the finesse of a defensive lineman, is down with the ball, pummeled like a dummy by the machismo linebacker.
Most students at Boston College have been to a football game. While those like me have booked those special Saturdays in Alumni Stadium since arriving on campus, most have at least gone by, once or twice, to see what the fuss is about. These students might not be football fans or even sports fans, but their friends are, and they don’t want to be left out and sitting in their dormitories with a nagging sense of missing out on the biggest event of the day. At colleges across the country, football is the biggest source of school pride, of camaraderie, and of bringing strangers together to cheer for a common cause.
But is going to college football games ethical?
Like many sports fans, the sense that football might not be around for much longer has begun to enter my consciousness. Throughout the past few years, a number of groundbreaking studies have shown that the head injuries associated with the game are a lot more serious than we may have thought. Players have committed suicide. Many are left with serious brain damage and memory loss. Hundreds are currently engaged in a high-profile lawsuit against the NFL for covering up information about these damages. Concussions, once thought to be the culprit, have been pushed aside by the three letters which may end football: CTE. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease resulting from the thousands of sub-concussive hits to the head a football player will suffer throughout his career, appears to be responsible for the aforementioned brain problems, as well as dementia and depression, in former players. The disease cannot be diagnosed to a living person, and its effects slowly grip its victims as they age.
I spent my summer reading a lot of pieces on CTE, the NFL lawsuits, and how the sport can survive and adapt to these horrible revelations. The unfortunate reality for fans is that it probably can’t. Better helmets can’t be invented: CTE results from your brain shaking in its skull canal like juice in a bottle. Eventually, others have speculated, parents are simply going to stop letting their kids play football, and the sport will become marginalized, as has happened with boxing.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is unethical to watch boxing. I choose to avoid the sport because I can’t cope with the knowledge that I’m watching two men literally beat each other’s brains out, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate boxing or make it evil. After all, good boxers are paid enormous sums of money to do this, and are aware of the risks associated with their sport. They are adults and are capable of making these decisions, and professionals who know that there is a market for their talents.
But I can’t say the same about the thousands of unpaid athletes playing for colleges around the country, or the children playing in Pop Warner football leagues dreaming of one day going to the pros and collecting that big NFL paycheck. These athletes, who are too young to weigh the complex factors which go into engaging in a dangerous sport, especially when they start playing in youth leagues, are not even paid for the efforts. Holding aside the increasingly popular argument that NCAA athletes are being taken advantage of by their schools and should be paid, I feel somewhat responsible for sitting on the other end of that equation, pumping money into the sport. Skeptics say that the NFL and the NCAA aren’t going anywhere because of the enormous revenues they generate. By paying to go to these games, am I exploiting these athletes?
During the past two Saturdays, these thoughts have been on my mind as I stood in the crowd of Alumni Stadium with my friends, watching my beloved Eagles play. I shuddered each time I saw a big hit, and, despite my efforts not to, I mentally tried to calculate how many Gs of force each hit may have sent to an individual’s brain. I sometimes take this further, and try to imagine if this player will ever even play in the NFL and finally be compensated for the risk he is taking. Most of the players on the field will not. What happens to them if they have long-term brain damage?
These thoughts are ruining football for me, and I have been wrestling with the ethics of even attending games. I have four football Saturdays left at BC, and, tempted by the fun of tailgates, the ability to be with my friends in the stands, and the great displays of school spirit which come with watching my team succeed on the field, I honestly don’t think I can stop going to games. I’ve tried telling myself that I’ve already paid for the tickets, but that isn’t a very convincing argument.
I don’t know how much longer I will choose to attend games, but, at the very least, I will go with a knowledge that doing so might be unethical. I don’t want to exploit anyone, or provide a forum for others to be exploited, but the negatives associated with abandoning football culture are too strong to win me over right now. I’m only human. But the case against football and the NCAA is growing every day, and if the organization collapses, I won’t be singing its eulogy.