The New York Times’ opinion page was star-studded on Monday. Economist Paul Kugman had written an article, and Hillary Clinton provided a guest column on Wall Street.
My eyes however, were drawn to the headline “Don’t Let Kids Play Football” that draped the left side of the page. Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was the first to diagnose anyone with chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a disease that has become associated with repeated blows to the head while participating in contact sports — discussed the need to implement a legal framework that would make playing high-impact contact sports such as football, hockey and boxing illegal before the age of 18.
The ramifications of such a law would be tremendous. And, for years, I have struggled with my own opinions on the matter.
Nonetheless, I had previously decided I wasn’t going to write a column on head injuries and football. But after seeing Dr. Omalu’s article, I changed my mind.
As a high school student, I was upset when my parents wouldn’t allow me to play football. I longed to clash helmets with teammates and opponents on the gridiron under Friday night lights. I thought surely four years of contact wouldn’t be enough to do any permanent damage.
Then I saw the movie “Head Games,” a documentary featuring former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler Chris Nowinski that examined the long-term effects that high school and even peewee football can have on the brain. The film was especially poignant for me because it mentioned the tragic April 2010 suicide of Penn football junior lineman Owen Thomas. Thomas, who was never diagnosed with a concussion and had no previous history of depression, was posthumously diagnosed with C T.E.
Afterwards, I was left stunned. My opinion had changed.
Omalu writes in his column that the brain is not fully developed until the years between the ages of 18 and 25. That is why he feels that parents and coaches should not be allowed to make the decision for a kid to play football and thus would outlaw the sport until the player is old enough to make the choice for himself.
But today we still have high school football, so boys grow up knocking heads from a young age. When they do turn 18, having already been exposed to the game, how can they be expected to give it up?
The evidence that the risks likely outweigh the benefits is clearly on the table when a player enters college. And yet they continue to play. They can’t be blamed for that. These guys aren’t dumb, and they’re not shortsighted. They’re brave and they’re young. And they’ve been competing for years already.
However, the debate over whether a player should continue to play should not end there.
Due to its unique format and set of rules, the Ivy League has an opportunity to pioneer a movement to protect these young men.
The conference preaches excellence both on the field and in the classroom. That is why there are no athletic scholarships. It is also a large factor as to why the conference only plays 10 regular season games and chooses to not partake in postseason play, something that could include as many as five additional contests.
But if the league is most interested in promoting the academic and postgraduate pursuits of its athletes, perhaps it should go beyond their current efforts to protect the students.
In few other leagues does the phrase “student-athlete” apply as it does in the Ancient Eight. Players boast exemplary high school transcripts off the field to gain acceptance, pursue difficult course loads during their undergraduate years and nearly always complete their degrees. Almost no one is bolting for the NFL Draft.
And yet many of these students’ futures could be compromised due to their time as athletes.
The Ivy League could take a stand for mental health and reduce the season to just the seven league contests and further limit full-contact practices.
Or it could be bolder. It could heed to the advice of the doctors and professors their universities employ.
The Ivy League could eliminate football altogether.
Such a move would attract unprecedented national attention. The debate about player safety would increase exponentially and surely schools of similar status — the Patriot League and Division II and III programs amongst others — would begin to consider doing the same.
The values football instills in young men are important. But they can be taught through other avenues. And inspiring molders of men like Ray Priore would still find ways to deliver these lessons to kids on other fields and courts.
A dialogue about football’s future is brewing as we speak. Why shouldn’t the Ivy League take a part in leading that discussion?
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