10 Reasons Football Should Be Banned in Schools
In 2012 Dr. Paul Butler, a board member at Dover High School, New Hampshire, stirred up controversy when he suggested that the school’s football program should be terminated. Dr. Butler was not speaking as a critic of the game; the soft-spoken yet stocky retiree used to play football at high school and college. But the growing mass of literature testifying to the game’s negative neurological effects had instilled in him a sense of responsibility as custodian for the wellbeing and education of the younger generation. Nor has Butler’s been the only voice suggesting football’s removal from American high schools; two University of Minnesota doctors, Dr. Steven Miles and Dr. Shailendra Prasad, recently set out exactly the same position.
The heresy of such suggestions, and the ludicrously disproportionate media witch-hunts that always follow, reveal just how much of a tinderbox the issue is. Writing in the New York Times, Paul Brownfield didn’t exaggerate when calling Butler’s comment entry into ‘a 21st century culture war.’ Indeed the sport is, despite the lip service paid to baseball, unquestionably the nation’s favorite. But there is a real and serious problem with its practice in high schools.
A 2013 research paper into head impact exposure in youth football estimated that there are 1.1 million children in the US playing high school football (compared to 100,000 playing college football and 2,000 playing at a professional level). Knowing that football has far higher concussion rates than any other high school sport, this presents a clear problem. The author of this list believes that football – for all of its cultural, commercial and entertainment value – should be banned in schools. Here are 10 reasons why.
The physical damage it causes is indisputable
When Dr. Bennet Omalu – recently immortalized in the Hollywood biopic Concussion – performed an autopsy on the late Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002, he was shocked by the injuries he found. Nicknamed ‘Iron Mike’ because of his durability, Webster’s body showed signs of a daily maintenance routine that would have made the terminator feel uneasy: using superglue to reattach teeth, duct taping his disfigured feet to make walking bearable and popping vast quantities of Ritalin to perform the most basic of everyday tasks.
Of course Webster was an NFL professional, maybe even one of the all time greatest. His injuries, therefore, were exceptional and mostly incomparable with most of those sustained by high school football players. Injuries are, however, a common and accepted accompaniment to the game of football. As revealed in this American Academy of Pediatrics article into tackling in youth football, injuries to the knee, ankle, hand and back are the most common amongst high school footballers, with the head and neck faring comparatively better (at only between 5 percent to 13 percent of injuries). Most research suggests that youth footballers receive fewer injuries than their collegiate counterparts, though the data is inconsistent. What is universally accepted, however, is that regular sub-concussive contact and technically poor and illegal tackling can lead to serious physical injury. And although the frequency of severe and catastrophic injuries (especially to the head and neck) is relatively low, more of these injuries are sustained in football than in any other team sport.
The psychological damage is substantial
Mike Webster was not the only former NFL player that Bennet posthumously analyzed last decade. In 2006, the neuropathologist received brain tissue samples from the recently deceased Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals defender Andre Waters. Both Webster and Waters were found to have been suffering from similar post-concussive symptoms. The difference was that whereas Webster had died from a heart attack, aged 50, Waters had shot himself in the chest in a particularly violent act of suicide.
Omalu’s tests found that Waters’ 44-year-old brain had degenerated so much that it resembled the brain of a 90-year-old man. Undoubtedly as a direct result, he had been suffering from depression and exhibited characteristics of an early onset Alzheimer’s so severe that Waters would have been completely incapacitated had he lived another 10 years. There are other examples: Junior Seau, who also shot himself in the chest in 2012, exhibited signs of hyper-aggression, being convicted on charges of domestic assault. Dave Duerson, who died the same way a month prior, manifested a cognitive decline grossly inconsistent with his academic record in the years before his death.
Nor are such symptoms exclusive to NFL professionals. Behavior amongst those who played high school football can include severe depression, suicidal thoughts and actions, loss of memory, early onset dementia and significantly increased chances of drug and alcohol abuse for those in their 20s, 30s and 40s. In fact, these are not institutionally indoctrinated behavioral patterns at all. As has been discovered over the last ten years or so, they are instead clinical symptoms of a progressive degenerative disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
First diagnosed in footballers by Bennet Omalu in 2002, CTE is an incurable and cognitively degenerative disease that can only be posthumously diagnosed following a cerebral autopsy. Because it’s a recent discovery, much still remains unknown. We do know, however, that although it’s extremely rare amongst the general population, it has been found in far greater numbers amongst people who have been involved in contact sports. Indeed as of 2014, 59 cases of CTE had been discovered in the brains of 62 ex-NFL players. But most worryingly, the earliest evidence of CTE was found not in the brain of an NFL athlete but in the brain of an 18-year-old high school student.
According to Omalu and other concussion experts, rather than being caused by individual undiagnosed high-impact concussions, CTE results from the normal sub-concussive hits that are part and parcel of the game. And the preconditions for CTE are not limited to the collegiate or professional game, as confirmed by a study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma into the presence of abnormal white matter in the brains of high school varsity footballers. To summarize, scientists were able to see noticeable increases in DTI (Diffusion Tensor Imaging) measures in the brains of those exposed to cumulative impacts. After a single season of high school football, MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) changes were observable that had previously only been associated with mild traumatic brain injuries. Finally, the study confirmed an association between participation on high school football, sustaining of cumulative head impacts and a decline in post-seasonal cognitive functionality. In other words, kids who played football couldn’t function as well as they should.
Go into any store and purchase a Schutt Sports helmet – or failing that just logon to their website – and you’ll be faced with either a sticker or a warning message reading: ‘No helmet can protect you from serious brain and/or neck injuries including paralysis and death. To avoid these risks, do not engage in the sport of football.’
Helmets were only made mandatory by the NCAA in 1939 and by the NFL in 1943, and it’s beyond dispute that in terms of design and durability they have come a long way since then. But as the Schutt message makes clear, no helmet on sale is protective enough. And with statistics from the sports concussion institute revealing that 1.6 to 3.8 million concussions occur annually and that of all sports football is the most likely to lead to concussion for males (with 75 percent of players getting concussed), we need to rethink our young’s participation in this sport.
A professional football player is estimated to receive between 900 to 1500 head blows each season; a staggering figure. What is more staggering is that high concussive rates are by no means confined to professional football, meaning that, as retired NFL defensive back Keith Smith recently said, ‘in terms of youth and high school football we’re in a race against the clock.’ Data from the Brain Injury Research Institute has revealed that in a single season a staggering 20 percent of high school footballers sustain some form of brain injury. What is sickening is that 40.5 percent of high school athletes that have sustained concussions are prematurely given the green light to return to the field – something that can quite easily cause fatality from Second Impact Syndrome (SIS).
Children’s brains are not fully developed
The effects of concussion and CTE may well be amplified in the brain of a child. As outlined by neurologist Larry Robbins, children’s brains are structurally different to those of adults, lacking both the protective covering of nerve cells (myelin) and the foundational support of strong neck muscles. Nor is Robbins alone in suggesting that the effects of repetitive head trauma could be more serious for children. CTE discoverer and NFL bogeyman Bennet Omalu has called for children to be prevented from playing football until they reach 18, putting the sport’s risk in the same bracket as alcohol, tobacco and asbestos, while Boston University School of Medicine professor and senior advisor to the NFL and NFL Players Association Robert Cantu has argued that children should be held back from all contact sports until they reach 14. Considering the fact that 70 percent of those who play football in the US are under 14, it’s not hard to see why.
With mounting statistical data, those who argue against contact being removed from the youth game rely on increasingly flimsy arguments. The first is that it’s vital to teach correct tackling technique at a young age before increases in the size and strength of players makes it a more dangerous endeavor. Yet John Gagliardi removed tackling from practice in 1956 and went on to become college football’s most successful ever coach. The only logical argument, therefore, comes down to entertainment. Football is a game for the spectators viewing pleasure in which high impact tackles are the main event and unless the craft is taught at a young age, the end result at professional level won’t be the same. The key difference here is that NFL players have made the bed in which they lie in.
Children cannot make informed decisions for themselves
Taking a step back from the scientific arguments for why football should be banned from America’s high schools, let’s consider the role of parental responsibility and role modeling. Seriously. I challenge any responsible parent to take a look at this video of pee wee football collisions and tell themself that this is in any way okay; kids practically as tall as they are wide running at each other at top speed and making head on head contact. As demonstrable from the video, because these little boys are not yet caught up in some of the insane modern ideas of what it means to be a man, they often cry. And they cry because it hurts and they don’t want to do it.
Behind the camera, however, is the father: shouting violent encouragement, whooping, cheering and occasionally gasping as his son comes off worse than his opponent. Football is important as a cultural pastime, but it has no place in schools. Schools are places for learning and academic and personal development. This is not to say that there is no room for competition both within and outside an academic context. But this should only be on the condition that competition is healthy. There is no argument that competition of the aggressive, violent and physical type that football encourages has a place in schools. This is not to argue for it’s all-out ban. Ultimately, we should follow the suggestions of the medical professionals outlined above in setting an age limit – just as we do for drinking, smoking and voting – so that when people play football, they do so knowing the risks.
It’s inextricably caught up with ideas of masculinity
Take a cursory glance over the comments section for an article discussing football’s ban from high schools and you see a similar theme.
- The wussification of America is in full swing
- How about we just wrap our kids in bubble wrap while we’re at it
- The only other option to turn boys into men is war
- You must sit when you pee
Here, football is a rite and passage – formatively vital in the transition of boy to man. Participation in a violent sport, combined with one’s ability to withstand pain, is seen both natural and expected. Conversely, those who suggest football’s removal from schools are cowardly, smothering and, as implied by the last comment, female. If we take sentiments such as these are reflective of broader societal norms and expectations, we should be concerned about the pressurizing effect this must have on high school kids. Indeed, as anyone will remember from their time at school, your teenage years are a time in which fitting into roles – the jock, the prep, the nerd – are seen as vital. Unfortunately for boys, there’s an expectation that the more masculine one’s (by which I mean the bigger ones) will participate in football.
The language around football deaths is also notably warlike. Like the fallen soldier in battle, high school football victims are often described as ‘the toughest… a leader who had moved into his role at left guard, a crucial position to the offence and one demanding selflessness and a commitment to often drudging work.’ While I wouldn’t sink so low as to criticize such language, I would say that its usage in a military context is necessary both for purposes of morale and because war is a human inevitability. Football in schools, on the other hand, is not an inevitability, and so doesn’t have to continue.
It’s disproportionately funded
The uneven distribution of scholarships between student athletes and students who don’t participate in football means that children at our country’s academic institutions are being rewarded for shirking academia. More than that, they are being rewarded for pursuing a sport that involves repeated heavy or sub-concussive head contact that can result in brain damage. Indeed sports programs enjoy protected statuses that endangered species in the wild would be jealous of (if they had the capacity for jealousy). So why, we should ask ourselves, are we continuing with this when we’re lagging behind in basic educational elements – math, literacy and graduation rates, for example?
Well, as people will say, it’s important to instill in our kids a love of competition and winning. So here are some comparative statistics set out in a direct, competitive way. While 93 percent of South Korean students (who aren’t obsessed with sports) graduate from high school, only 77 percent of American students do so, and only 2 percent of these an athletic scholarship. The pattern is plain for all to see, and it shows we’re not winning.
Feel free to crucify me for this in the comments section, but directing more funding towards arts programs would make firstly school environments, and then college environments, much more friendly and welcoming; by encouraging creativity as opposed to combat, collective participation as opposed to winning at any cost. And to emphasize again, this is not a choice between one or the other. We can have both.
There’s no payoff for most participants
Here’s an inconvenient truth. In many small towns, a lot of high school funding comes from selling tickets to football matches. This places a financial imperative on the game that transforms high school students into athletes whose participation may be inextricably caught up with the school’s survival. These kids are rewarded, either with preference for scholarships over those who don’t participate in sports or by having lower grades overlooked when it comes to graduating. But it could be argued that the psychological damage outweighs these benefits.
Firstly there’s the aspirational damage. The majority of kids won’t make it into the NFL, so repeatedly banging their heads loses one of its primary functions. Nor should the NFL be viewed as one of the only paths to a better life, but that’s for a different debate. Then of course there’s the physical damage. If your argument is that football is needed in schools for fitness purposes – to counter increasing diabetes rates or obesity levels, for example, that’s fine. But be prepared to defend why a sport that carries with it more traumatic injury potential than any other must be the go-to choice.
Basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, swimming, rowing: there are dozens to choose from. The difference is that football is able to justify its existence because of its current cultural currency and entertainment value and because of the revenue it brings in at the upper levels. Schools, however, are the cultural nucleuses of the next generation. They are places of learning for the young, and it is the young who will dictate in the future which sports will and will not be given unquestioned primacy. Let’s do our part and help them with their first step.
It’s ultimately lethal
We’ve already talked a lot about physical damage to both the body and the brain that can result from football. This, in itself, should worry parents enough that we put an end to its practice in high schools, and the replacement of football by the less contact based soccer is already catching fire across some states and cities, including, as of 2015 St. Louis, Missouri. There are, however, those who continue to defend against a high school football ban – one of the staunchest of whom is Tim Green (hardly surprising given his career as a linebacker and defensive end).
Speaking at an Intelligence Squared Debate, Green issued a complete non sequitur when confronted with the potentiality for death in football, suggesting that we might as well discuss banning driving, riding a bicycle and sports such as rowing. Not only does this completely circumvent the issue of why football should be banned, it also disregards the fact that fatalities on the pitch are not the main debated issue. It is the effects that manifest themselves 20 to 30 years later that we should be more concerned about. But we’ve talked about CTE and the later manifestations already, so in order to shock naysayers into taking this seriously, here are some deaths that have occurred on the pitch.
In September 2016, 17-year-old Andre Jackson from Cleveland, Ohio died from a bowel laceration and peritonitis resulting from being kicked in the abdomen Just two weeks before in Pearland, Texas, Chase Lightfoot (also 17) collapsed during a game’s second half because of a cardiovascular problem. In 2015 there were seven direct football-related fatalities, all of which occurred amongst high school students. Death in any sport is inexcusable. The death of a child is beyond inexcusable, and the only way to ensure it never happens again on the school football pitch is to prohibit our children’s participation.
Some may be surprised to know that this is not the first time in football’s history that its continuation has been called into question. Eighteen deaths – most shockingly that of Harold Moore by cerebral hemorrhage – and 140 injuries in 1905 galvanized president Roosevelt into summoning athletic advisors from the universities of Harvard, Princeton and Yale to the White House to discuss how to reform the sport. The president of Harvard, in particular, wanted to ban the sport, but under Roosevelt’s moderation compromises were made, modifications enacted and the sport survived.
We know a lot more now, though, than we did one hundred years ago. Football’s physicality is one thing, as is its potential lethality, but we’ve always known that. The difference now is that we may be staring down the barrel of an endemic in memory related issues, early onset Alzheimer’s and a number of other effects resulting from the institution of school football. And high schools – as institutions of learning, experience and formation that will equip this generation to lead the world we leave them – are no places for cognitive and degenerative diseases. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to tell you that.
CTE’s discovery is, of course, relatively new and we do not yet know the extent of its spread amongst young footballers. We could be looking at a few dozen cases, or, with 1.1 million children who play football in our schools, a few hundred thousand. This uncertainty is truly terrifying, and should not only make the debate more heated, but should bring to urgency its resolution.