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Why Do Small Colleges Need Football? And Why This A Radical Question To Ask At Your College

February 22, 2011, 12:43 pm

Photo credit.

Last Thursday, Dave Duerson, a four-time Pro Bowl Safety for the Chicago Bears, killed himself.  He was 50 years old, and it seems that Duerson believed that his brain was deteriorating from the effects of multiple concussions.  He chose a particularly painful and risky way to die, shooting himself in the chest, so that an autopsy might be done to determine whether he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). As Alan Schwarz wrote for yesterday’s New York Times,

Duerson sent text messages to his family before he shot himself specifically requesting that his brain be examined for damage, two people aware of the messages said. Another person close to Duerson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Duerson had commented to him in recent months that he might have C.T.E., an incurable disease linked to depression, impaired impulse control and cognitive decline. Members of Duerson’s family declined an interview request through a family friend. 

Only Duerson could have known why he believed he had CTE, and the autopsy will show whether this is true or not. But Duerson’s life had begin to fall apart in ways that suggest brain changes.  A clearly vigorous and intelligent man who was active in the player’s union, starting in 2005 he lost his business, his home, and his seat on the Notre Dame board of trustees. He also separated from his wife.  These latter facts wouldn’t have made him any different from many other unfortunate people who have lost traction in the recent economic meltdown, but Duerson clearly believed that something else was at work: perhaps it was because, amidst the avalanche of bad luck and missteps, was an incident of domestic violence.  Most men I have known who do something violent for a living — police, soldiers, athletes — pride themselves on their ability to control and direct their violence, and when this line dissolves it can be shattering to their sense of themselves.

What has been less observable in the daily stumblings, memory gaps and failed impulse control experienced by former football players becomes unavoidable when they commit suicide.  Such events are even more troubling when the victims are young. Take Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania lineman who hanged himself last fall.  Thomas was the second member of the Penn team to kill himself in five years and, according to Boston University researchers, traces of the disease have been found in football players as young as 18.

My friend Margaret Soltan over at University Diaries has carried on a determined crusade against the money spent on university athletic programs, as well as the corruption, exploitation and dangerous behavior that are associated with big time university sports programs.  But who is looking out for small college athletes, and the effects of CTE that they are undoubtedly suffering as well?

No one, that’s who.  As Michael Felder wrote last June at the sports blog In The Bleachers,

I’m a 25 year old guy with a history of multiple documented concussions at both the high school and collegiate level. To clarify, the concussions they “documented” were mid to high level injuries that left me being spineboarded once, knocked out a few times and unable to stand up or clearly unable to play others.

That does not count the subtle “bell ringings” experienced and played through during kickoff coverage drills, 9 on 7 sessions or any of the other hitting drills. Everyone does that, it isn’t a “tough guy” mentality so much as the cost of doing business.

What about the rest of us?…. The walk-ons, back ups and guys who just weren’t lucky enough to make it to the NFL. The guys who got hurt but still took that brain beating on a daily basis prior to injury. Guys who played Division-III, JUCO, Division-II or FCS football.

But you think football is untouchable at the level of the Big Ten or the Patriot League?  Try the Division III school where the quality of the game is often poor, no one goes on to the NFL and you can’t even pretend that there is significant money at stake.  At Zenith, for example, no one worries about whether alumni/ae donations will dip because of the elimination of Zonker Harris Day, but if you talk about the dangers of football, you would think you had suggested canceling the next capital campaign.  (Note:  former President of Princeton William Bowen and his co-author Sarah Levin argued in 2001 that there was no significant correlation between athletics and levels of annual giving.)

I know two high-level academic administrators at elite D-III schools who, in the midst of the budget slashing that has affected all of us for the last three years, have been told to cut faculty salaries, administrative staff positions, benefits and whole departments — but not football.  Admissions policies that committed to grants rather than loans have been scaled back, and even wealthy schools are shaking the trees for more full payers.  However, despite growing evidence that it puts young brains at significant risk and its gajillion dollar pricetag, football is off the table when it comes to eliminating programs.  One of these administrators (not at Zenith) received a personal telephone call from the President and was told s/he was never to discuss eliminating football again in a budget meeting.

Left:  normal 61 year old brain. Right: football player, age 42.

Furthermore, try raising the issue about what, exactly, the D-III football player is at college for, and see how quickly you get shut down.  Well over fifteen years ago, when I was a young pup starting out, one of my advisees on the football team tried to take a seminar on Thoreau from one of the college’s most gifted teachers.  He was told by an assistant coach (at the time, coaches vetted players’ schedules prior to advisors si
gning off on them) that “he wasn’t smart enough” to take the course, and that he had come to Zenith to play football not to take pansy English classes.  When I called the head coach (naively believing that he would want to reign in an out of control assistant) I received numerous threatening calls from administrators around the university, including a licensed psychotherapist, who asked me pseudo-compassionately:  “Why do you hate football?” as though s/he might be able to help me with a problem that was clearly causing me pain.

Has growing evidence that brain trauma may be just as severe at the sub-concussive level affected the desire of D-III colleges to have football teams?  Not a jot, as far as I can tell.  Furthermore, I can’t discern that anyone is even talking about it.  Although schools like Hofstra, Northeastern and Swarthmore have eliminated football (Swarthmore’s team was legendarily awful), the trend seems to be that college football is growing, particularly on campuses that are concerned about being perceived as too female.  Football teams, like flashy student centers and hot tubs in the dorm, are perceived as a form of entertainment and a spur to school spirit that will, in turn, allow colleges to compete for the students they want.

But who is speaking on behalf of the thousands and thousands of football players, at elite and non-elite schools, who are suffering brain injuries that no one is tracking, kids who graduate and show up in the necrology section of the alumni magazine at an uncommonly early age?  Who is tracking the kids who drop out because they can’t think straight, or because they are one of numerous students who get too depressed to function?  One colleague of mine at another D-III school told me about her experience last year with a student who was unable to do his schoolwork because of chronic headaches following a concussion, but had been “cleared” to practice and play the following Saturday.  S/he called the head coach to express concerns about the student’s health and was directly told to butt out.  A follow-up call to the dean of faculty elicited the same response.

Yet a focus on specific incidents blurs the picture.  The fact is that we have growing evidence that football causes brain damage, and schools continue to insist that the sport is part of their educational mission.  While concussion is a possible outcome of many competitive experiences, for football it is an every day cost of practicing and playing.  Who is doing the long term studies about brain injury in football players who are competing at a level where the players are smaller, the practices less intense, but the continual bouncing of the brain inside the cranium no less consistent?

Too often, faculty assume that athletics themselves are a waste of resources and are inherently at odds with the intellectual mission of a university.  I disagree emphatically, and I particularly dislike criticisms that single out a particular group of students as undeserving, unaccomplished and unworthy of an excellent college education.  But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at some sports more closely.  Students who are recruited for football are being brought to college to work for their education at a part-time job that is directly at odds with their ability to profit from their education over the long-term, and perhaps even in the short term.  Although some players probably gain admission to a better school than they might if they didn’t have this skill, is it truly a good exchange for them if their brains are being fatally injured in the process? Why can’t those young men who put their bodies on the line for an education go to good colleges anyway without risking their mental and intellectual health?

The increasing willingness of the athletes themselves, and their grieving parents, to volunteer for these studies should be a sign that those who claim to be speaking on behalf of football players’ interests may be speaking from a self-interested or merely outdated perspective.  At the very least, we on college faculties should press for information and forums that acknowledge the reality of an alternative point of view about the place of this sport in higher education.

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