Recognizing the Dangers of Football

When students at Boston College complain about football, they’re usually lamenting the team’s typical lack of performance. But there is something far more upsetting about BC football than the team’s subpar record: head injuries.

The association between football and head injuries has been a hot topic lately. You may have heard of the term chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease often found in athletes, veterans, and other people who have experienced repetitive trauma to the brain. It can only be diagnosed post mortem, and in July, The New York Times published a summary of a study from Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that 110 out of 111 brains of former NFL players had CTE.

The first symptoms of CTE do not appear until years after head injuries occur. These generally include changes in mood and behavior, including impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia. Looking at these symptoms, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that professional football players and athletes from other concussion-prone sports have committed violent acts.

For example, in 2013, Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was accused of murdering another player, before taking his own life this past April. A recent autopsy of the 27-year-old showed signs of advanced CTE. I find it interesting that Hernandez, among many others, suffered frequent head injuries during his youth. If CTE can result in violence, it is a problem for everyone.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, who spoke at BC in February 2017, is credited with discovering CTE in the brains of former football players. As a forensic pathologist, he spent years battling the NFL, which only acknowledged the link between concussions and CTE in 2009, years after scientists had found evidence for the connection.

It’s almost funny that BC, a school with a culture so tied to football, would invite one of the biggest critics of professional football to speak about the dangers of repeated head injuries.

Perhaps there is a misunderstanding about the connection between professional and college sports. I couldn’t find a statistic on the frequency of BC players that go on to play professionally, but I did find that there are currently 17 BC alumni playing in the NFL.

While NFL players likely train more intensely and experience more injuries than college players, I doubt that the injuries suffered are that different from those of college players. Any brain damage is too much brain damage.

Turns out some BC players have already suffered. In one example, in 2016, former BC running back from 1974-77, Glen Capriola, filed a lawsuit against both BC and the NCAA. Capriola argued that both entities knew about the link between football and traumatic brain injuries, but did not properly educate the players about these risks or establish measures to protect athletes. Capriola was allegedly knocked unconscious during a game and later put back in the game despite having no memory of what happened.

Was our school unaware of the gravity of traumatic brain injuries or was it negligent? I’m not sure, but at least this man’s suffering led to improvements for future players. BC programs now use state-of-the-art guidelines for concussion care. Modern helmets have come a long way, and can reduce concussion risks substantially, though it is unclear to what extent; there is some evidence that a true concussion-proof helmet cannot exist.

Again, any brain damage is too much brain damage, and I believe it’s impossible to protect players completely in an inherently dangerous sport.

The larger problem with football at BC lies in the unquestioning loyalty we are expected to offer our school’s team. To ignore football is social suicide. This has prevented many of us from seeing the darker side of the sport.

Members of the BC community are beginning to notice the ignorance of BC football culture. Matt Sienkiewicz, associate professor of communication and international studies at BC, recently wrote an opinion piece highlighting the irony that a university, a place for learning, would celebrate the “systematic destruction of student brain function.”

Sienkiewicz pointed out that even repeated sub-concussive head trauma is linked to delayed cognitive symptoms. So no matter what BC does to prevent brain damage among football players, they will leave BC with a “great education and some brain damage.”

This is not a sports issue, but an ethical one. It is disgusting that an educational institution can promote the repeated brain damage of its students. Obviously players have the freedom to choose whether to play football in college, and they may do this knowing the risks associated with repeated head injuries. But that choice becomes more difficult when there are scholarships and social benefits awarded for playing at BC.

Maybe I’m wrong. I come from a background that rewarded creativity, not competition. My family never watched football, and I still don’t know exactly how the rules work.

But I do know that it feels wrong to cheer on students while they butt heads on a field. As intelligent people, both students and faculty at BC have to acknowledge the problems with football and the effect it has on young people’s brains. I am eager to condemn football and call for it to be removed from organizations of learning, but I don’t anticipate that actually happening.

I expect to see immense change when a test is developed to diagnose CTE in the living. As Sienkiewicz acknowledged in another article, the revelation that college players receive even a small amount of CTE would be devastating to university programs. Maybe the introduction of a neuroscience major at BC will mean more students are learning about such traumatic brain injuries, and help develop tests these very tests.

Sienkiewicz mostly discussed how faculty can change the status quo, but I want to target students. If we each make a few changes, we can stop buying into the problematic football culture at BC.

What we can do is stop attending games. When you go to buy your Gold Pass next year, imagine what noise a brain makes when it slams against the skull. The pass includes admission to hockey and basketball games as well, so maybe students could channel their enthusiasm for football into supporting other sports at BC.

When you want some new BC football gear, think about the impact CTE could have on the lives of BC’s players later on. Use the money you save to buy a ton of beer and throw a sweet party! Isn’t that what tailgating is anyway?

No student at this University can take neutral position on this issue, whether you like football or not. BC needs to make it clear what it cares about. You can’t care about football without caring about the lives and futures of the football players. Until we see some action from BC (even just a statement acknowledging the risks of football would be nice), supporting football means being complicit in the brain injuries of students.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor