Why Boston College Should Rethink Football

Not long ago, I had a chat with a graduating senior. Like many of our students, his last days on campus were marked by a pleasant blend of wistful nostalgia and hopeful speculation. Great things had happened and more were on the horizon. Not only had he completed his Boston College education with strong grades, but he had also spent four years on the football team growing as an athlete and as a person. He loved his coaches, loved his teammates, and learned as much on the field as in the classroom. I asked the student if he had any regrets. Well, he sighed, “I’m just glad I didn’t get brain damage.”

His words were both terrifying and tragically over-optimistic. In that moment, the student took solace in the fact he had only suffered a few minor concussions. But, as study after study has suggested, it is very likely the simple act of playing football, not being concussed, that causes diseases such as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Repeated sub-concussive head trauma is consistently linked to delayed symptoms, including dementia. In other words, my student very possibly received both a great education and some level of brain damage at BC. Even if he escaped, many of his compatriots surely did not.

The implication of this is clear: BC should cease playing football, at least as it is currently constituted.  

It is a dark, unacceptable irony that an institution devoted to developing intellectual capacity would allow, let alone celebrate, the systematic destruction of student brain-function. This reality, clear to anyone willing to pay attention, has forced me to give up my connection to a sport I truly love. I miss watching football. As a child, I bonded with my father over it. In high school, I matured as a person by playing the game and facing its rigors. But as a college professor, I must acknowledge that these wonderful positives are dwarfed by the painful truths that science and the news cycle are revealing about the sport. The recent analysis of Aaron Hernandez’s brain, which showed severe levels of a football-correlated degenerative disease in an otherwise healthy 27-year-old, makes the potential dangers of the sport all the more apparent.

And this is why our faculty should not celebrate or accept the current state of college football. We should not attend games. We should not ask students cheerful questions about next week’s opponent. I, for one, will take the symbolic step of no longer signing off on students missing class for football games. To be fair to these young men, I will continue to excuse their absences and offer make-up exams. But I will not be putting my name on the blue sheets they hand me every semester asking if it is ok. It is not ok. To the extent that I can articulate that fact without harming their education, I intend to do so. I will look for other, more concrete opportunities to exercise the limited leverage I have as an individual.

As for the University, my hope is that it will take the lead in establishing a reformed version of the sport that maintains excitement but brings risk down to an acceptable level. This is a grand project requiring extensive interdisciplinary research, but it is one perfectly suited to BC’s history and mission. Football is an important part of our school’s past and now is the time to take the steps that will allow it to be part of a moral, educationally responsible future.

Given the evidence at hand, there is no neutral position to take. We will either be complicit in the ongoing epidemic of football-related brain injuries, or we will be at the forefront of creating a safer, less hypocritical college experience for our student-athletes. I hope our principles, both as committed educators and as a Jesuit institution, give us the strength to make the difficult but correct decision.

Dr. Matt Sienkiewicz is an associate professor of communication and international studies at BC.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor