Tuesday, January 21, 2020
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Football players trade brain damage for scholarships

High schools, justifiably concerned about the health of their student-athletes, fork over $900 apiece for the latest high-tech, “concussion-resistant” helmets.

“Despite the fact football continues to enjoy immense worldwide popularity (estimates put fan numbers at or above 400 million), the sport remains under constant scrutiny for its approach—or lack thereof—to concussions,” writes a web page about one such helmet from Vicis.

But the “facts” involved here have nothing to do with the number of fans; rather, we are concerned with telling boys to play a sport we know has a higher-than-average chance of giving them permanent brain damage in the form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The word “chronic” in the name refers to an abnormal condition that doesn’t get better over time or with treatment but continues to get worse as these boys become men.

A New York Times op-ed puts the issue in perspective. While colleges bring in money from football businesses—often football coaches are their highest-paid employees—universities rightly reward an inordinately large number of students scholarships for playing football. This leads parents and kids to “apply” for that scholarship money by focusing on football, by far the most popular scholarship sport, instead of using financial need or academic prowess to get their hands on those dollars that ultimately help them get a college education.

It seems self-defeating, doesn’t it? We use a sport that makes boys unable to learn due to permanent brain damage when they become young men in order to give them money to help them pay their way to a degree at an institution of higher learning. The only educational mission served by football is not a mission for the football players themselves but for the fans: the students who enjoy going to games because they gain a sense of belonging to their school communities. Enjoying school is no small issue, for sure, but it’s not about any actual benefits to the football players themselves—who often don’t finish their degrees anyway.

Some high schools, including Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Maryland, have eliminated football altogether in response to growing concerns over CTE.

“The truth is, while some will decide the game’s risks aren’t worth it, others—mostly lower-income black and brown kids—continue to depend on it as a chance to climb the educational and economic ladder,” writes Albert Samaha in the op-ed. He’s the author of Never Ran, Never Will: Boyhood and Football in a Changing American Inner City. “Yes, football is dangerous, but so is leaving one’s future in the hands of an unequal educational system. It’s no wonder the sport still feels like a winning ticket.”

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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