On College Football and CTE

Jeffery D. Rankin/Monmouth College

On July 25, Neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee published a bombshell study in the Journal of the American Medical Association on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative brain disease suffered by an increasing number of football players, resulting from repeated trauma to the head. (The New York Times also published an in-depth story on McKee’s findings.) McKee studied the donated brains of 111 NFL players from a wide range of ages and positions, and the results were devastating: 110 of them were found to have CTE, which can cause memory loss, confusion, depression, and dementia, and is thought to have played a role in the 2012 murder-suicide case of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher.

And it’s not just an NFL problem. The Times cites research compiled at Stanford that explains that the types of blows to the head that lead to CTE often seem benign and non-violent, and are suffered with great frequency by college and even high school players. Their research noted that “one college offensive lineman sustained 62 of these hits in a single game.” And CTE can show up early on, or years after an athlete’s career has ended.

As someone who worked closely with college football players for seven years, both as a writing tutor and director of a writing center in academic support services for student-athletes, I have witnessed the incredibly hard work these young players put in, both as athletes and as students whose lives are overloaded with commitments and expectations. And I have seen countless students endure concussions that sent them to the hospital, and in some cases even impacted their brains long-term. I’ve known twenty-year-old students, whose prowess on the football field won them the opportunity of a college education, that have come back from severe concussions with memory and learning issues that weren’t there before. These types of injuries don’t just end football careers; they end academic careers, and can, as McKee’s research shows, end lives as well.

Though I was fond of the student-athletes I worked with throughout the years, I’m not a big fan of college football for this very reason: the way it exploits players at the expense of their health, both physical and mental. I recognize that it’s extremely important to many people, not least the players, for whom it can open many doors. But it’s become increasingly impossible to debate the devastating effects of the game, and one has to wonder: how much longer can this go on?

That’s the question John Warner asks in his insightful post for Inside Higher Ed,College Football’s Inevitable End.” He writes,

There is little doubt that football is bad for the brain. As the years pass, we will come to understand exactly how bad, but there is already good reason to believe that playing football comes coupled with a significantly increased likelihood of diminished cognitive function and even decreased lifespan.

Given these facts, I think it’s probably time for universities to start considering how they’re going to disentangle themselves from football. It’s not going to be easy, but if it isn’t already apparent, someday it will be clear that institutions which are supposed to help students realize their intellectual and emotional capacities instead sponsor an activity directly linked to the opposite.

Warner is not arguing for a complete eradication of football as we know it, and he foresees a number of potential solutions to the problem of CTE – i.e. technological advances that will allow for better protection or better ways to measure trauma, or a fundamental change in the way the game is played. But college football, already a touchy subject when it comes to the question of exploitation, is becoming more and more at odds with the mission of the university in general, he argues. And with the effects of CTE as horrifying as they are, it’s a problem that’s getting harder and harder to ignore.

Read Warner’s full piece for Inside Higher Ed.