Fix football safety issues or stop playing

Universities do not lack reasons to discontinue NCAA college football activities — e.g., the cost of the program, the issue of player compensation and the impact of scandals on the institutional brand. But it is the sheer brutality of the sport and its concussive consequences that should prevail over all other concerns.

As reported in “The Little Red Book of Football Wisdom,” former Michigan State University coach Duffy Daugherty defined the nature of football bluntly: “Football isn’t a contact sport — it’s a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport.”

Today, though college players rarely die as a direct result of practicing football, which unfortunately is not the case for high school players, the risk to their cognitive functions is becoming increasingly evident.

Indeed, research findings are worrisome at various levels. First, it would seem that the number of reported concussions (i.e., brain injuries) is on the rise in recent years, although it could well be that brain trauma was underreported or undiagnosed in the past or that the number of football programs has increased.

In the latest published analysis of 15 NCAA sports injuries from 1988-1989 to 2003-2004, football accounted for 48 percent (4,404) of all concussions in games and practices. More recently, the NCAA reported that concussions represented 7.4 percent (about 3,034) of all injuries in college football from 2004-2005 to 2008-2009.

Second, published health literature has revealed that college football players who suffer multiple concussions can expect a longer neurocognitive recovery time than those who experience a single concussion. In addition, the link between recurrent concussions and long-term cognitive impairments among non-professional football players is gaining support.

For instance, 42-year-old former Western Illinois wide receiver Mike Borich, who may have sustained 9-10 concussions as a high school and college football player, died of a drug overdose in February 2009. He was subsequently diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative neurological disease that was previously detected in deceased NFL players.

The full impact of concussions and sub-concussive shocks on brain activity and cognitive performance among college football players is still unclear. It is possible that a single concussion could do more damage than previously anticipated. For instance, a small study in the journal Radiology recently found that “a single concussive episode can result in global and regional brain atrophy 1 year after injury.” In that case, one concussion would be one too many.

NCAA football players are student athletes and the responsibility of schools themselves. Unless these institutions can guarantee the near-absence of concussions or even milder traumatic brain injuries through a radical revamping of college football rules, the mandatory use of preemptive sensor-based helmet technology (“airbags” for football helmets), or other means, they should abolish their football programs for the safety of their players. The same argument goes for other NCAA sports that are concussion-prone.

I hope that readers, especially football fans, will remember that college football should never turn into a tragedy for its players. Measures to prevent cognitive risks in college football are long overdue.

Michel Dupagne is a professor in the School of Communication. His views are strictly his own and do not reflect those of the School of Communication or the University of Miami.

Featured Photo Courtesy Flickr user John McStravik