Libresco: The game’s not worth the risk

Yale students wouldn’t turn out to spectate and cheer for a car accident, so why is our campus so excited for football?

On Saturday, when our team goes out to roughhouse poor old Harvard, the members of the football team may be inflicting and sustaining injuries that could have long-lasting effects. Football’s head-to-head collisions can cause serious concussions. Although players may not suffer immediate harm — not all concussions result in a loss of consciousness, and some pass unnoticed unless players are tested with brain scans — the damage may cause serious mental degeneration later in life.

According to a 2000 study conducted by Barry Jordan, the director of the Brain Injury Program at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital, over 60 percent of NFL players have experienced at least one concussion. A quarter of the players surveyed had been concussed three or more times. A 2007 study from University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes found that players who had suffered three or more concussions experienced depression three times more often than players who had never been concussed. Upon autopsy, the brains of NFL players and boxers (who suffer similar rates of concussion) look like those of elderly patients with advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Much of the fault for this epidemic of concussion-induced dementia lies with the NFL, which is tasked with protecting its players, but some measure of blame falls on football fans who watched the body-shaking collisions and did not wonder about the possible toll on players. Sports fans endorse lax regulation with every championship ticket they buy, every jersey they wear and every game they watch.

Too often, we ignore the ways our media consumption habits make us culpable for harmful trends. The steroid scandal in baseball is being driven by a competitive arms race among teams, but also by the increasing focus on sluggers and home run records, rather than the game as a whole. Fans who cheered players who were clearly juicing are being disingenuous when they express shock and horror when doping is proven.

Our outrage at the steroid scandal exposes our own hypocrisy when it comes to the health of players. Steroid users are criticized for cheating, but we also claim that the list of harmful side effects from steroid use is what makes these athletes poor role models for children. Why should we treat “artificially” induced harm as intrinsically more dangerous or despicable than the “all-natural” consequences of their sports? Excellence in athletics frequently puts pressure on athletes to take unnecessary chances with their bodies. If we cheer for these sports, we cannot absolve ourselves of moral culpability when athletes come to harm.

After all, football and boxing are not the only sports to have racked up a body count. Some injuries are the result of pushing promising athletes to begin intensive training and play too early (witness the growing number of teenage Little League players who require elbow reconstruction surgery), but plenty of sports are intrinsically destabilizing to the body (female gymnasts usually have delayed onset of puberty as a result of their training regimes).

The physical strains suffered by many athletes are worrisome, but their choice to leverage future discomfort against current success and profit could be defensible. But the head injuries suffered by football players and boxers are uniquely horrifying because they result in mental rather than physical degeneration. The family members of these players, like those of Alzheimer’s patients, feel as though their loved ones have been stolen from them, as the players’ personalities are gradually erased by their disease. This is among the most horrific ways to die.

It is incumbent upon us to ask how Yale players are being protected from concussions and how effective the NCAA’s regulations, which are currently in the process of being revised, are limiting head-to-head contact. We have a duty to our fellow students to ensure their college years aren’t putting them at risk for serious brain damage in the future. If you’re dissatisfied with the current regulations, or if you’ve never taken the time to check them out, you shouldn’t be cheering during the scrimmages on Saturday.

Leah Libresco is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.

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