GLASS: Rutgers, among others, should work to make football safer
Opinions Column: Extra Curricula
Playing football has been one of the peak experiences of my life. I would never deprive anyone else of the experience, especially a son or grandson. But, there is danger associated with it. This danger needs to be addressed. The great risk associated with football is long-term brain injury.
It has long been known that a general danger from athletics is concussion, which is the effect of a blow to the head strong enough to cause loss of consciousness or at least to cause confusion. Generally, there is complete recovery of any loss in cognitive function from a single concussion. But, each additional concussion makes complete recovery less likely. This factor alone suggests that for the benefit of the player, there should be a three-, or two- or even one-concussion rule beyond which retirement would be obligatory unless complete recovery of function was demonstrated by a detailed cognitive exam.
Recently, a second risk has been identified. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) was once thought to be an extremely rare disease. But, it has now been documented that retired football players (and soccer players) exhibit the disease at frequencies far higher than are assumed to exist in the general population. CTE is characterized by abnormal concentrations of the protein tau in the brain. It results in dementia and death.
Unfortunately, because CTE is currently only detected at autopsy, today its cause is unknown. The obvious candidates are some combination of head banging, environmental toxins, medications and genetic susceptibility. But, the obvious candidates do not always turn out to be the correct ones. Until a cause is determined, what preventive measures short of banning football are possible will remain unknown.
What is needed is a long-term longitudinal study involving active and retired players. Such a study is being undertaken by the Football Association of England.
But a long-term longitudinal study in this country of active college football players, as well as players of other contact sports is also needed. In addition, former players should be included. A wide variety of cutting edge cognitive tests would be administered at regular intervals and participants would agree to an autopsy upon their deaths. It is certain that within the first year such an intensive study would detect small changes in cognitive function that would be undetectable in daily life but nonetheless would be outside the normal range of function. The personal histories of the individuals with these changes would be important clues to their cause.
Once individuals with long-term impairments were identified, lifestyle changes that might retard the progress of the disorder could be systematically studied.
Obviously, if college football is to continue, then colleges and universities should make every effort to determine the cause of CTE. Fortunately, the Big Ten conference is the ideal organization to do this. It has a large base of current athletes. It has close contact and good relations with football and other athletic alumni. It has detailed records of their academic performance, hence their cognitive function. The faculty in the science and medical departments embody the world’s expertise in neural disorders and scientific research. Many faculty would enthusiastically participate in a research program on the long-term neural changes following college athletics.
Current athletes would be tested as part of their training commitment and alumni would be asked to join the testing program for their own self-interest. Such a program could cost more than $1 million a year. This is a lot of money. On the other hand, it is approximately one-tenth of what Rutgers would pay football head coach Chris Ash not to coach football if he were fired at the end of this season, and Rutgers would not be the only school paying money to a fired coach. So it would not be impossible to raise the money. It would be a question of priorities.
One way to raise the money might be to tax the football programs that have the largest budgets or to tax the coaches with the highest salaries. I do not think the coaches would object. My experience with coaches is that they genuinely love their players and would gladly contribute to their long-term welfare. Also, perhaps the NFL would fund it.
Once funding was secured, all that would be necessary for the Big Ten is to select some prominent faculty member who is an eminent neural scientist to head the program and then send out emails to all campuses to recruit other scientists to the program. It is surprising and disappointing that they have not done so already.
Arnold Glass is a professor in the Rutgers Department of Psychology. His column, "Extra Curricula," normally runs on alternate Thursdays.
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