Will Football and CTE Give Way to Futból and Do-Re-Mi?

Phasing out football programs as we learn more about their damaging effects on the brain may benefit more than just our minds and bodies.
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Kutztown University defensive back Corey Harris is checked out on the field by training staff after an injury in a game. (Photo: Aspen Photo/Shutterstock)

Kutztown University defensive back Corey Harris is checked out on the field by training staff after an injury in a game. (Photo: Aspen Photo/Shutterstock)

While many wait to see what becomes of Jameis Winston after his Heisman win or Michael Sam as the first out gay pro player, there’s continued speculation about the future of football as retired players make the news for all of the wrong reasons. Consider Ben Utrecht’s testimony this past June before the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging as a case in point.

Utrecht, a tight end with the Indianapolis Colts and the Cincinnati Bengals, suffered a career-ending concussion in 2009. Five years later, he spoke about writing a letter to his wife and daughters in anticipation of a future day when he might not be able to recognize them anymore. “What’s my greatest fear? It’s to be trapped inside the coffin of my mind,” he told the committee. “To wake up one morning and not remember the faces and names of the people I cherish the most.”

Utrecht is 33. He may not know until after his death if he is suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition that has been associated with repeated concussions. That’s because currently CTE is only diagnosed postmortem. But Utrecht knows the stories of other football players, such as Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, who took their own lives rather than suffer through the anguish of watching their mental facilities ebb away.

While funding for sports, arts, and languages need not be a zero-sum game, I expect to see more people arguing that languages and the arts need more money precisely because of the outcomes they promote in human brains.

I follow football because, like most Americans, I was taught to cheer for the game at an early age. I follow CTE because, like most educators, I am interested in the life of the mind. Increasingly, many of us, educators and Americans alike, are finding it harder to cheer for football, given stories like Utrecht’s.

With his story in mind, let me make a bold prediction: In 15 years, most high school and college football programs will disappear.

They will disappear because of the connection between concussions and permanent brain damage.

They will disappear because parents will be more and more reluctant to risk their sons’ long-term health.

They will disappear because the costs for liability insurance to school districts and public and private colleges and universities will go through the roof.

And they will disappear because institutions whose primary mission is the nurturing of the mind will find the dissonance too great to continue. (The United Negro College Fund isn’t the only organization that believes that a mind is a terrible thing to waste.)

I’m not the first to make these suggestions; in a 2012 story in Grantland, economists Kevin Grier and Tyler Cowen looked at historical models of businesses dying off and provided some illustrations about how America would look without football. And the NCAA’s recent announcement giving more autonomy to the biggest conference schools will, in my estimation, only accelerate the speed of the changes as colleges and universities re-evaluate their finances and mission and weigh the place of football to both.

Even if football’s demise doesn’t come to pass as starkly as I imagine and they outline, we all can see that the world of football is changing rapidly and dramatically. At first the NFL was a league of denial when it came to the connection between concussions and brain damage. Then, having been sued by former players, the league offered a limited settlement. Now, “the N.F.L. has made an open-ended commitment to pay cash awards to retired players who have dementia and other conditions linked to repeated head hits,” according to the New York Times. In short, the league is acknowledging that football can be extremely hazardous to your mental health.

It’s why I believe institutions of learning are going to re-evaluate the place of football and other high-impact sports in their missions. And I believe this re-evaluation is coming sooner than any of us imagine.

What this means is that a lot of money is going to be up for grabs. And I hope that those of us who support language acquisition and arts education will be ready to make a case for some—if not most—of it.

We know that concussions promote brain disease. We also know that language study at a young age affects brain development in highly desirable ways. And we also know that engagement with the arts generally—and learning a musical instrument specifically—provides learners with changes in their brains that help in later life with hearing, reading, emotion, and memory.

While funding for sports, arts, and languages need not be a zero-sum game, I expect to see more and more people standing up and arguing that languages and the arts need more money precisely because of the good outcomes they promote in human brains.

In their study, Grier and Cowen looked at how colleges might change without football around. “No football Saturdays on college campuses means less binge drinking, more studying, better grades, smarter future adults,” they wrote. “Losing thousands of college players and hundreds of pro players might produce a few more doctors or engineers.” And maybe a few more trilingual artists and musicians as well, as more and more dollars are allocated toward activities that we know promote brain development and cognitive growth.

Utrecht is leaving a legacy for his family, reminding them of the kind of man he is and has tried to be. We, too, must question what we want our legacies to be. To do that, we will need to have our brains at top capacity. Learning languages and music help to get them there.

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