What football does to your brain (not to mention your alma mater)

Can football be civilized?

3 minute read
Nowinski (above) survived to lead a crusade.
Nowinski (above) survived to lead a crusade.
Four years ago, the New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell declared war against the brain-concussion "sport" of football by comparing it to dog fighting. Last December in BSR, the former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Mike Boryla similarly likened professional football to a "meat grinder." (Click here.)

But let's start our discussion of football closer to home— with the suicide by hanging of Penn's co-captain Owen Thomas, aged 21, in April 2010. Owen's missionary parents in Allentown were shocked to discover that many deceased National Football League players had died by the same concussion-induced brain disease that motivated Owen.

Doctors at Boston University examined Owen's brain tissue and discovered mild chronic traumatic encephalopathy, an Alzheimer's-like disease that impairs normal brain functions and eventually kills brain cells. Those researchers couldn't definitively link Owen's disease to his death, but they noted the pattern of suicidal behavior in chronic traumatic encephalopathy victims, including the former NFL players Andre Waters and Terry Long.

Penn's regrets

Owen's mother, Katherine Brearley, said on a Boston University video that her son didn't have a big concussion, "so I hope there is some research into what happens in a developing young person with a lot of little jolts to the brain." In chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a toxic protein builds in the brain, leading to early symptoms like memory impairment, instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control. Dementia and death can follow.

On their way home after signing "Gift of Life" papers, the Thomases got a call from Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler who retired at 24 because of multiple concussions. Nowinski subsequently founded the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization dedicated to furthering awareness of and research on sports-related head injuries, and wrote Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis From the NFL to Youth Leagues.

Reverend Brearley gave Nowinski permission to examine Owen's brain. Later Ann McKee, a Boston University associate professor of neurology and pathology, revealed that Owen's brain had a disease associated with repeated head trauma. Penn officials expressed their sorrow but would only reduce full-contact practice seasons from five per week to two.

Paterno as hero

Gladwell argues that the head injury issue— specifically, the fear of injury suits—will ultimately doom or at least drastically modify college football. But he also feels that only the Ivy League schools can lead lesser universities to minimize college football. Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, has so benefitted from football-induced philanthropy that its academic influence now equals that of the Ivies.

As a former Penn professor myself, I believe that football has infantilized America's not-so-higher education. (Think of Joe Paterno as Penn State's hero!) The result is that many colleges offer not so much a higher education as a higher playpen.

Competition overseas

Europe's universities haven't been so distracted. Neither are those on the emerging continents. America's penchant for the playpen that has crippled our civilization.

Back in the day, my schoolmates and I played touch football at Holy Rosary Academy and Sacred Heart Seminary, without concussions or deeper conclusions. Bad habits are much easier to slide into than to escape.

Second only to the obliteration of America's middle class by our greedy one-percenters is the infantilizing of education as a destructive force in our common future. I hereby assess 100-yard penalties on all the glib fools who got our educational system in such a mess.♦

To read a response by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation