College football’s brain drain

Watch this:

How did that feel? It pumped me up, enough that I made a Chris Tucker reference when Jeremy and I liveblogged the Miami-Georgia Tech game several weeks ago.

Malcolm Gladwell has a piece in the latest issue of The New Yorker that makes it harder to get excited about that sort of hit or virtually any other contact on a football field. Gladwell’s central argument is a sensational one: that football and dogfighting are somehow equivalent. He suggests that football zealots and owners of fighting dogs share a genuine affection for their charges and a love of their violent exploits. The dogs — and football players — suffer grievously for their owners’ (or fans’) passions, Gladwell says.

I reject that argument, chiefly because (as Jeremy noted when he and I talked about the story), football players willingly compete. Fighting dogs don’t. But the story is still a worthwhile (if lengthy) read.

About two-thirds of the way down, Gladwell focuses on the Sports Concussion Research Program at the University of North Carolina. He discusses the case of a Tar Heel lineman who suffered a pair of concussions in 2004, one in preseason practice and one during a blowout loss to Utah:

We … tend to focus on the dramatic helmet-to-helmet hits that signal an aggressive and reckless style of play. Those kinds of hits can be policed. But what sidelined the U.N.C. player, the first time around, was an accidental and seemingly innocuous elbow, and none of the blows he suffered that day would have been flagged by a referee as illegal. Most important, though, is what Guskiewicz found when he reviewed all the data for the lineman on that first day in training camp. He didn’t just suffer those four big blows. He was hit in the head thirty-one times that day. What seems to have caused his concussion, in other words, was his cumulative exposure.

That section is revelatory. In recent weeks, the college football world has spent a lot of time debating post-concussion treatment for players, specifically Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. While concussions (and the big hits that cause them) are important, we may be missing the greater danger. If the research Gladwell spotlights is accurate, we should be just as concerned about the thusands of relatively minor collsions football players suffer every day in practice as we are about the blackout hits we see on game day.

Butch Davis and the North Carolina athletics department deserve credit for taking head trauma seriously. The coaching staff has applied lessons from the concussion researchers, outfitting UNC players with helmets equipped to gauge collision impacts and cutting back on full-contact practices in response.

Contact will always be part of football, one of the most compelling parts. Hits draw fans, and fans fill athletics department coffers. A sizable chunk of the mind-boggling revenue the NCAA reaps on the backs (and brains) of football players should go into supporting head trauma research and applying its outcomes at every football-playing school. Not just the ones sharing a campus with top-notch researchers.

2 Responses to College football’s brain drain

  1. Looks like a typically interesting MG piece; does he mention problems with dementia that many retired NFL veterans face?

    • Jimmy Ryals says:

      He does. Autopsies on former football players have shown an abnormally large amount of an Alzheimer’s-causin protein on their brains, although a second Alzheimer’s-related protein doesn’t show up at all. Raises some questions about whether there’s some misdiagnosing going on with former football players and boxers.

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