It is time to wean Minnesota high schools and colleges from sports that damage the brains of the students that they are trying to educate. Tackle football and rugby should be phased out. Varsity soccer might be preserved if heading is barred and reserved for professional play.
The evidence is compelling and disturbing. The risk of traumatic brain injury from full frontal contact sports is unavoidable, even though it can be somewhat reduced by headgear, rule changes or even electronic sensors that measure head slams as they happen.
The Illinois High School Association faces a class-action suit for concussions. (Young brains are more, not less, likely to be injured.) The number of high school students showing up for these sports has fallen by half, because parents are steering kids to safer activities. National Football League (NFL) players have sued their league for concealing the injuries. The tragic suicides and disabilities among pro and school athletes mount.
Even Mike Ditka, who could fairly be called America’s “Mr. Football,” says he would not let his own son play. “I think the risk is worse than the reward,” Ditka said. “I really do.”
School football culture is in deep denial. Coaches and administrators know that the risk of severe brain injury is unavoidable. They know it is uninsurable. They know that the conflict of interest of team physicians is entrenched and that the sport will send players with concussions back into play with impaired judgment and therefore increased risk.
A pro career is largely a mirage that lures students. College athletes from the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division II and III rarely go pro. Fewer than 2 percent of the players on Division I teams like the University of Minnesota Gophers are offered a first-year pro contract. Only a few of those get a second year. The average pro career is less than three and a half seasons.
The arguments in favor of retaining football and rugby do not stand up to scrutiny. We can make better helmets and better rules, but these don’t change the fact that football and rugby players bang heads frequently — and hard. It is arbitrary to draw a line separating out football and rugby, but lines are always being drawn. The NFL does depend on universities to find and develop new talent, but schools do not have an obligation to attract, subsidize and sift through a large number of varsity football players to find the one in 70 who goes pro for a couple of years. The $10 billion NFL should finance its own farm teams.
Everyone can participate in phasing out these sports.
Parents should take Ditka’s advice; he knows what he is talking about.
High schools and colleges should plan to end their football and rugby programs and reallocate athletic resources.
School districts, municipalities and the Legislature should not help pay for any more high school or Division II or III football or rugby facilities. The U should not build its planned football training facility but should make do with what it has.
Schools should not center alumni weekends on football Homecoming. Other occasions can be developed to celebrate the role of schools in enriching lives. Campuses have countless offerings: mini-courses, TED lectures, stirring stories from students who have achieved despite enormous obstacles, student clubs, plays, concerts, art and distinguished alumni. The football void would be easily filled. Alumni should direct their feet toward these alternatives and away from the campus stadiums.
Physical activity is necessary to a healthy life. Even without football or rugby, students should still be encouraged to enjoy baseball, basketball, bicycling, golf, rowing, track and field, rock climbing, personal training, skating, skeet shooting, skiing, swimming, volleyball and so on. Any of these activities is more likely to be part of a healthy lifestyle than football or rugby.
The sun is setting on football. Minnesota’s schools and alumni should do the right thing by their students and prepare for the new day to come.
Dr. Steven Miles is a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School.