Tuesday, February 22, 2011

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

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 signing 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.


Janice said...

My father was a Big Ten football player. That's how he got to his university to study engineering. Fortunately, his shoulder was badly injured and he left the team before two years were up. Went on to complete a Ph.D. and enjoy a distinguished faculty career.

Back in the 50s, you could be an engineering student and on the starting line-up. Today? I'm not sure.

My small northern university has no football or hockey team. A few years back, there were rumours we'd get a football team again, but that went nowhere. The costs were prohibitive, thank goodness! I believe that basketball and soccer (our major team sports) are less prone to brain injuries.

I have a friend whose SLAC sees a great deal of enrolments coming from young men who couldn't make higher division teams but still want to play college football. The school happily exploits that ambition to top up their enrolments and I'm sure they're not alone. At what cost, however?

Anonymous said...

You make some excellent points and I agree with all of them. I work at a branch campus of a public institution. We don't have a football team but we suffer because funds are spent on the main campus to support this money losing and life draining effort. And, to top it off, this year all salaries were frozen, all union contracts abrogated and $13.5 million was given to the athletic department as an extra because they'd overspent their budget. I wish our students had the tutoring resources of the football team. As one of my students said "ain't gonna happen."

Bardiac said...

I taught for several years at a SLAC that blatantly used the football team to recruit young men who wanted to play college football and couldn't play at a bigger school. They'd suit up 100+ players (about 10% of the student population) at a game.

The budget inequalities between the football team and all other sports (mens' and womens') were astounding. But any questioning about those things was shut down super fast.

Courtney said...

As the daughter of an FCS football coach, who also played college sports, I had to chime in.

I agree; the ramifications of playing football at a FCS and below (D-I, II or III) are usually worse than better. These schools do not have the resources to adequately suit up, care for and prevent harm to student-athletes. Brain injuries are a terrible consequence of collegiate athletics.

That said, the large number of football players DOES drive opportunities for female athletes; both through Title IX and financially. Case in point: FCS schools which "play up" one game a year, essentially prostituting themselves for the athletic department's financial gain. Since 2001 schools in the Big Sky Conference have played Georgia, Tennessee, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Texas A & M, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Colorado, Colorado State, Wisconsin and a number of other Big Time schools, for payouts of between $250-800,000. That money doesn't stay within the football program; it pays for women's tennis, women's soccer, etc. Unfortunately, many of these money games expose football players to injuries they would not have risked in competition against players of their own caliber.

The NCAA is a racket which does not protect the best interests of a student-athlete at smaller schools.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to post semi-anonymously (TR may recognize my initial) on this because my employer school is one of those D-III SLAC football schools.

Like Bardiac, my school recruits heavily for its highly successful program. There are no athletic scholarships here, but most all get aid. And many more suit up than play because all suiting up get to travel. My school's football players, for the most part, are not the best in the classroom. But it has more to do how they envision themselves here, and their work ethic and effort in academics. I'm a R.M. Hutchins-esque advocate of the idea that football has no real place in higher edu---it's a distraction from the real goals at hand---and bigger distraction than most other kinds of athletic endeavors, which is the major problem. And now there's the brain injury issue. Duerson's story is so tragic.

That's it. I'm just venting, agreeing with the post, and lamenting. - TL

Anonymous said...

I'm firmly on the pro-college-football side of things: I love the sport and am enough of a realist to know that it's not going anywhere.


It strikes me that, although TR's points make sense about smaller colleges, the intervention's too late. Football isn't something people pick up freshman year of college, it's something they've been playing for years, some since kindergarten Pop Warner. So the damage has already been done. What's really needed is for the reassessment of helmet technology but more importantly different tackling methods and more sensitivity to concussions being a legitimate reason to sit out--for all of that to start very early.

Val said...

I was always pretty anti-football, though I was charmed when, during Wes orientation, I met a hall-mate who offhandedly told us he was the starting QB. At the time, the fact that he wasn't boastful about it made me think more highly of him.

What your post really has me thinking about is how women's rugby, at least during my latter years at Wes and specifically after the dissolution of QA, became a stand-in for a real queer community. After QA dissolved, Wes had: an email list, a coming out group, sometimes a students of color group, and women's rugby. Attempts at reorganizing into an umbrella group repeatedly failed over my last two years. I'm not sure where things are now. But in that period, Women's Rugby became a way for some folks to work through coming out and became the only real community. Or at least that's how it seemed to an outsider to it. Because playing sports required some measure of athletic skill, it wasn't an option for me. And even for those who did, it came at a price-- playing a violent sport without any padding at all. I remember seeing a friend putting on a tape headband at my first rugby game. I thought it was to keep her hair out of her face. But it was to keep her ears from being ripped off! I believe one student had gotten so many concussions that the student eventually began to wear a small helmet. But that seemed to be the exception rather than the norm. Less violent then football, maybe. But still a problem in my mind.

Liz in Ypsilanti said...

I work at a Big Ten university, but my husband and I are well acquainted with a small religious college nearby that recently started a football program. http://www.sienaheights.edu/Athletics.aspx So many of the comments you made about the future of the athletes at these schools occurred to me as I read the alumni magazine a few months ago. I regret that I did not send any protest letters. Thank you for asking these important questions out loud.

DrGunPowderPlot said...

Great post, because it puts the emphasis on the students: they're kids, and they're getting hurt.

I am one of those faculty who thinks that Div I sports (at least) don't belong at a university, but my opinion is based on kids trying to do a job while seeking an education, and on my own experience.

I recently had a big-star basketball player in my class, and I work at an institution where basketball is something we're quite good at. This student refused to do any schoolwork during the season, and this was tacitly accepted by the athletics department. Infuriating. The advisor actually said to me that the student would like to do the work for the class in a different semester, while remaining registered in this one.

It's this kind of behavior that fuels some faculty negative attitudes towards big sports at universities. I'm with Murray Sperber on this one: http://www.amazon.com/Beer-Circus-Big-Time-Undergraduate-Education/dp/product-description/0805038647

Susan said...

This is spot on. It's the students we should be concerned about, and the things that get in the way of their education. Never mind their healthy life.

My father, like Janice's, played football in college(at a very intellectual SLAC). Then playing through injury was when you sprained your ankle, not when you had concussions.

One thought, or more a question: on two campuses where I've been, the male athletes were often working class guys, especially in sports like hockey and football. I wonder if both the seeming lack of concern about concussion and about the failure of many such students to succeed is about that in some way? And whether also having sports recruiting spares campus other outreach to working class students?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I love the sport of football, but the more I learn about the unavoidable head injuries--not the massive concussions, but the repeated subacute collisions that cause severe brain damage years later in some players--the more troubled I get.

Anonymous said...

Reputable, successful athletic programs play a part (not necessarily an overwhelmingly significant one, though) in the rubrics of ranking agencies (US News & World Report etc.), which have become increasingly important to admissions offices throughout D-III schools. This might be one reason for the ostensible seriousness of Zenith's program.

Moreover, D-III schools compete at D-I levels in a number of sports (rarely football) - e.g. Trinity Squash, JHU Lacrosse, Colorado College Hockey, to name a few. Pressures to match the reputability of other interscholastic programs might have an impact on how seriously coaches and administrators take the other athletic programs at D-III schools. And D-III Coaches might also use these schools as launching pads for careers at better athletic programs, thus demanding championship caliber play from students.

Any thoughts on these observations? If D-III football programs will continue to be run as they are today--which I'm sure most would expect--then how can health concerns of players be made a priority when more than just a season record is at stake? A very interesting dilemma indeed. Solutions?

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous: One dilemma, from my perspective, is my "anything worth doing is worth doing well" philosophy. It used to distress me that Zenith spent so much on a football program that wasn't any good. Now we have a really good head coach, and a far better program all around in his first year, in part because this coach values the players' lives as students and acts on that. His success and his overall decency (as well as the quality of the players I have met), in turn, makes it more difficult to raise some of the vexing issues I outline in this post about whether football should be played in college at all. There is really no such thing as a halfway commitment to the sport, and still claim that you care anything about player safety. And yet, evidence is mounting that playing and practicing football causes systematic harm to athletes' brains, particularly in certain positions. This makes it different from many other sports (hockey, basketball, lacrosse) where concussion is an incidental risk, and rule changes can significantly diminish that risk.

If this is the central issue, none of the rest matters at all. Who will be the college president who actually stands up and says this?

Tenured Radical said...

Addendum: Val, you know I agree with you on the rugby thing, and thought it was particularly awful that it was a virtually uncoached and unsupervised sport, given the risks and injuries actually sustained.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear -- less football, more lacrosse!


Comrade PhysioProf said...

And yet, evidence is mounting that playing and practicing football causes systematic harm to athletes' brains, particularly in certain positions.

Yes, particularly to linemen, whose brains are experiencing accelerations relative to their skulls similar to those imposed by an automobile crash on every single fucken play. My opinion is that this is mostly an unintended consequence of *better* helmets, which encourage players to allow their heads to collide on every play, or even to intentionally use their heads as an impact surface. If all you have on is a leather skullcap, you sure as fucke aren't intentionally smashing your head into the dude you are colliding with.

Anonymous said...

I believe that there is a significant risk of head injury in folks who play a lot of soccer (see for example http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9617409

I have also read that a disproportionate number of female basketball players suffer significant knee injuries such as torn ACL.

And rugby football as described by Val above sounds like a pretty dangerous sport.

Should these sports be eliminated from colleges as well? A concussion is a concussion, after all, whether you get it from football or soccer or rugby.


Anonymous said...

The power of football over school and University politics is legend. My father was a school board member for a high school district in California. During one of the periodic budget cut-backs, he made a motion to get a quote for the district's liability insurance without coverage for football. An immediate call for a recess was made by the Superintendent, who then conferred privately and individually with the other four members. Upon returning, not one member was willing to second the motion. Also, several years ago at UNH, then also in a budget crisis, when during a faculty meeting a measure was made to drop football, the President stepped up and ruled the meeting adjourned before a vote could be taken!

Art Remillard said...

Great topic! I've forwarded it to many colleagues. After reading this, I learned of a basketball coach at a Catholic school who resigned after a viral video shows him shoving a player to the ground and kicking him.

I wonder if it is an exception, or if it is the product of a “win at all costs” ethos? OK, I don't wonder. I lean toward the latter. Oh so many Bo Pelinis and Bobby Knights. I ask my students about this often, and the tendency is to accept yelling, shouting, and belittling when it's “in between the lines.” Imagine if profs did this in the classroom? They'd be fired, or at least be subject to ridicule.

So I wonder, at the small college level in particular, why aren't there more John Gagliardis? No shouting, no whistles, no obscene practice schedules. Only one rule: the golden rule. And winning? He only has the most in college football history.