So who’s right? The pro-football crowd? The pacifists? Nobody? Everybody?”
Last September, a high school football player in Georgia died after a traumatic blow to the head during a Friday night game.
His name was Dylan Thomas. He was a 17-year old junior at Pike County High School in Zebulon.
The location seems irrelevant, though, because such a tragedy could have occurred in any town where teenagers knock heads on Friday nights, which is to say virtually anywhere else on the American map.
Just like that. One hit. The end of a life.
Thomas’ tragic death comes at a moment in which the din being stirred up by head injuries in football is as loud as its ever been, and it brings to the forefront the same difficult question this country has been grappling with for the past five-plus years: should we be allowing our kids to play a sport that has the potential to produce devastating consequences?
There are impassioned and reasonable arguments on both sides of the aisle.
Many of those in favor of football, particularly the high school variety, believe it builds character better than any other sport. They accept the potential for serious injury because it puts young men in intense situations and forces them to respond. Fight or flight. Kill or be killed. Either knock your opponent’s head off or he’ll knock yours off first, and your friends and family will be there to see it. Through this ritualistic exhibition of violence boys become men, and those men then carry hard-won lessons into the workforce and, as it has been told, build a better America.
For many, football is the last bastion of old America, a tougher America, an America that’s not afraid of getting a tooth knocked out or dirt under its fingernails. It’s an America many fear is disappearing – or has already vanished.
Take the following quote from an op-ed by John Balentine published in The Forecaster last month. In the piece, Balentine references a PBS documentary in which two “Amazonian jungle boys” undergo a ritualistic passage into manhood that involves shoving “their hands into mitts lined with bullet ants” and keeping them on for 10 harrowing minutes.
American football at the high school level can’t compete with venomous ants in terms of pain, but both the jungle boys and our young football players share something: they learn to turn off that voice in their head that tells them to run away and cower. They face their fears. And by doing so, they’re toughened mentally and emotionally. I want kids like that growing into adults who will lead America in the years ahead.
For others, though, football represents a hideous, barbaric side of the American Personality that evolution has yet to weed out.
This pacifist camp points to the apparent evidence that repeated blows to the head – not just concussions – can cause CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which has the potential to lead to substantial cognitive erosion. The sport may build character, they say, but kids can learn the same lessons (i.e. determination, resilience) through more humane athletic pursuits. And even if football does teach lessons that no other sport can offer, these benefits are made moot by the fact that death and debilitation are much more likely on the gridiron than, say, the baseball diamond. And shouldn’t the long-term health of our nation’s youth be the top priority? After all, we want them to live long and happy lives, right?
This pacifist camp points to the apparent evidence that repeated blows to the head – not just concussions – can cause CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which has the potential to lead to substantial cognitive erosion. The sport may build character, they say, but kids can learn the same lessons (i.e. determination, resilience) through more humane athletic pursuits.”
As Steve Almond, author of “Against Football” writes in an op-ed piece on wbur.org:
The question almost no one dares to ask is painfully obvious: What is a dangerous, insanely commercialized form of athletic combat doing in our public schools? In an era when parents lament rising class sizes, crumbling facilities and underpaid teachers, why are taxpayers underwriting a form of entertainment that quite literally causes students to suffer diminished brain function?
Between the pro-football camp and the pacifist camp, there’s a large swath of people wading in a sea of moral ambivalence. These are the individuals who enjoy the sport for any number of reasons (character building, entertainment, etc), but feel guilty about said enjoyment because of the potentially long-lasting and irreversible damage the players may be inflicting upon one-another.
These people are torn between their heads and their hearts, and I count myself among that legion.
It’s easy to be mired in this uneasy middle ground, considering the scientific evidence isn’t exactly definitive about what youth and high school football is doing to brains of our country’s children. In a now-famous article published by The New York Times in July 2017, only three of 14 former players who competed strictly in high school showed signs of CTE.
However, a Wake Forest study found that boys aged 8 to 13 who played one season of football showed “changes in the brain,” though the effects of these changes aren’t made entirely clear. Additionally, a Boston University study found that kids who play before the age of 12 are twice as likely to suffer from behavioral problems and three times as likely to suffer from depression.
Not damning evidence by any means, but certainly food for thought. What is terrifying, however, is the anecdotal evidence, the stories of former players who suffered through private psychological hells as CTE slowly killed brain cells and made daily life unbearable.
What is terrifying, however, is the anecdotal evidence, the stories of former players who suffered through private psychological hells as CTE slowly killed brain cells and made daily life unbearable.”
The most famous of these stories are about NFL players, guys like Junior Seau, Mike Webster, Ray Easterling and many others. But there are tales from the college and high school ranks, as well.
Take the late Tyler Hilinski, a former quarterback at Washington State. Hilinski killed himself at the age of 21, and postmortem testing turned up Stage One CTE. His brain looked like that of a 65-year old, reported The Seattle Times.
Or consider the late Zac Easter, who never played football beyond his high school days in rural Iowa. Easter suffered from terrible headaches and severe bouts of confusion for six years before shooting himself in the heart at the age of 24 to preserve his brain for science. Postmortem testing confirmed the presence of CTE.
But even these nightmarish tales don’t paint the whole picture. The truth surrounding football and CTE, at least for now, is much muddier than it first seems.
In that now-famous study that appeared in The New York Times, 110 of 111 former NFL players whose brains were donated to science showed signs of CTE. However, the sample was far from random, considering many of the players featured in the study were exhibiting symptoms of CTE before their deaths.
There’s also a 2016 study that appeared in The American Journal of Medicine that found the suicide rate among former NFL players to be “significantly less than would be expected in comparison with the United States population.” While not a perfect study, that result seems to go against the pervasive idea that former pro football players are killing themselves at a higher rate than the general public.
Additionally, there’s Dr. Peter Cummings, a brain scientist who decided to let his son play football after conducting extensive research on the link between football and CTE. Cummings had this to say in an article he wrote for Yahoo! Sports in 2017:
In fact, it’s not entirely clear if CTE is unique to traumatic brain injury. CTE-like pathology has also been seen in the brains of people who’ve died of epilepsy, without any history of head trauma. There are also cases of opioid overdose deaths where the brains show signs of early aging, including tau accumulation. This might suggest other mitigating factors make some people more prone to developing CTE than others.
So who’s right? The pro-football crowd? The pacifists? Nobody? Everybody? There’s a lot of hysteria on both sides at the moment, with the pro-footballers fretting about the eventual elimination of their beloved sport and the pacifists wanting to chip away at its popularity to protect the mental health of future generations.
“There’s a lot of hysteria on both sides at the moment, with the pro-footballers fretting about the eventual elimination of their beloved sport and the pacifists wanting to chip away at its popularity to protect the mental health of future generations.”
In a true sign of the times, Mike Ditka, an NFL Hall of Famer and a venerable prototype for old school, hard-nosed football, said that if he had a son today, he wouldn’t let him play football. To wit: “Nope. That’s sad. I wouldn’t. And my whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward. I really do.”
Will I continue to watch football? Sure. Will I continue to enjoy it? Partially, but certainly not as unabashedly as I did 10 or so years ago. Will a part of me feel guilty that another part of me continues to enjoy it? Absolutely.
But here’s the million dollar question, posed to all the Millenials out there, as that infamously nomadic generation settles down and begins to raise families. It’s the same one that Ditka replied to: Would you let your kids play football?
That question will be answered, en masse, over the coming years. And our collective response will determine football’s ultimate fate in America.
This article originally appeared in The Mountaineer.