Frontline’s “League of Denial” highlights research into the neurodegenerative disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in football players. Preliminary studies suggest that subconcussive impacts, ubiquitous at all levels of football, contribute to the condition. Case studies have shown evidence of it in the brains of deceased high school and college players. CTE may not just be a horror story from someone spending a decade or more on an NFL line. It may be a risk for anyone playing football, at any level.
Whether it is moral, ethical or liability concerns, the consequences of the research could be existential for youth football, high school football and even the far more lucrative college game. The NCAA is already facing class-action concussion lawsuits that, potentially, could approach or even exceed NFL levels of damages.
The NFL settled with its former players for $765 million. That was considered a victory. The figure was less than it could have been. The league did not have to admit fault. League officials did not have to testify. That amount would be crippling for the NCAA and college football programs. Their liability could end up being greater.
NFL players are employees. The league has the obligation to inform players of risks and take reasonable steps to ensure safety. But, ultimately, grown men can make a cost-benefit analysis with their own health. For many, especially those from impoverished backgrounds, the material rewards are worth the hazards. Maybe CTE changes that calculation. Maybe it won’t.
College is different. Players are, at least technically, students. Universities, at least technically, are not companies. Most participating at a high level are public institutions. They have a greater moral and ethical responsibility to protect those under their umbrella. The potential player pool for a class-action suit is broader. The damages claimed would not be limited by a worker’s compensation formula. Perhaps fittingly, the very compensation laws NCAA amateurism has ducked may end up biting them.
The NFL spent decades insulating itself and bracing for a potential concussion lawsuit. The NCAA has done almost nothing substantive regarding concussions, besides acknowledging they aren’t good. As Patrick Hruby points out, bagel toppings and the like have been a far greater priority.
While football at every level is struggling with the issue of brain trauma — it’s hardly hyperbole to call it an existential crisis — the college game’s response has been to do … well, not a whole lot. No systemic effort to reduce injury risk. No comprehensive concussion diagnosis and treatment protocol. No serious blueprint from the NCAA, which typically takes a Supreme Soviet-shaming approach to governing amateurism, crafting and enforcing endless, nit-picky rules that cover everything from text messages to high school recruits to permissible bagel toppings, all in the name of protecting athletes.
What happens to athletic departments if concussion lawsuits go apocalyptic? Football may be reformed. Teddy Roosevelt stepped in during the early 1900s, when schools were considering dropping football due to grievous injuries and deaths, to push forward radical changes. These included the neutral zone and the forward pass. There was an emphasis on keeping the character of football, lest it become “too ladylike.”
We’re not sure what specific changes would work. “Flag football” has been a derisive term, but a softer, far safer version of the present sport may be the only way forward.
It’s also possible college football could just end. Public opinion can shift rapidly. Perhaps the liability and insurance demands become too great. At smaller schools, this would not be so disastrous. Schools below the big five conference level don’t generate enough revenue from football to support their own expenses forcing athletic departments to rely on student subsidies. Removing the expenses from football, at least in the books, would be removing a net burden.
For major, football-dependent athletic departments, it would be an acute problem. Departments have grown alongside the football revenue. Men’s basketball is the only other sport that produces a surplus or even funds itself at most institutions. Many programs would have to drop varsity sports to club level. There would be fewer employees and fewer employees earning six figures. Massive facilities would have to be sold off or diverted toward some academic use (untapped luxury dorm market?).
Losing football would be a psychological blow. Schools such as Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, and Notre Dame have made the sport an ingrained indelible part of the on campus experience. It’s how universities sell themselves to students and connect with alumni. That said, the on campus experience itself may be on its way out in coming decades.
The cost of attending college has been rising well above inflation. Americans already owe more than a trillion dollars in student loan debt. The middle class and spending power are diminishing. So are state and federal funding sources. Schools that are not Harvard may struggle finding financial aid. The four-year public university graduate with $100,000 in debt and only marginally enhanced job prospects does not seem to be a sustainable model. Even at major universities, a significant percentage of students may soon be paying for a cheaper option to log in to a virtual campus. Sports, as hard as this is to conceive, may be a secondary concern.
By 2050, an Ohio State student may be logged in from Southeast Asia, filing into a virtual stadium to watch scarlet and gray avatars play some sport that provides far more than 11 minutes of entertainment for a three-hour time commitment.
How likely is this change? The CTE research may be “preliminary.” That does not mean it is invalid or going away. Science can be frustrating. Proving causality is difficult. Even basic concepts that underpin modern science are theories, our best explanations based on what we can observe. Science is conducted by humans. It is both imperfect and political. There is almost always room for doubt. But, as with any human endeavor, it’s easier to criticize than to contribute.
CTE research is “preliminary” because the research material is limited. Diagnosis can only happen post-mortem. You can’t take cross-sections of a living person’s brain tissue. It may take hundreds or thousands of brains to rule out variables and draw conclusions. That will take time.
This issue resembles the controversy over climate change. Scientists have observed the globe warming. Greenhouse gas emissions, a byproduct of human industrialization, seem to be the most likely culprit. Climate, however, is tremendously complex. It’s hard to isolate a specific cause that would provide proof.
Actions required to combat both climate change and CTE would be drastic and unpopular. People like consuming energy. People like watching football. There is a natural resistance to change on both fronts. In both instances, there is a multi-billion dollar industry with an imperative interest in blocking those actions by instilling uncertainty. In both instances, the human cost of not acting may be devastating.
CTE research will continue. The most reasonable hypothesis, based on the preliminary findings, is the research will find a strong correlation between football as constituted and a number of traumatic brain problems. The changes needed to make it “safe” will be far more extensive than targeting penalties and de facto elimination of kickoff returns. The NFL can callously employ the willing if the market bears it. But colleges haves a broader mandate to look out for their students’ welfare.
[Photos via USA Today Sports]