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Why not a Football-Free Campus?

Malcolm Potts, professor of population and family planning | November 9, 2014

Let’s think the unthinkable. Let’s do the impossible. We have a Tobacco-Free Campus: why not a Football-Free Campus?

Just as tobacco-free Campus took 50 years to arrive, so could the football-free campus. But it will come, just as assuredly. Why not now?

I was lucky enough to know Sir Richard Doll, the British epidemiologist who unraveled the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. He wanted to know why lung cancer rates were rising. Initially he wondered if the tar from surfacing the ever increasing number of roads being built in Britain was the culprit. Only slowly did compelling evidence emerge that smoking causes lung cancer.

The morbidity and premature death associated with American football are unambiguous. I taught anatomy for several years. I dissected human brains and I spend thousands of hours looking down microscopes. The brain is a soggy jelly inside a rigid bony box. Unlike skin, the brain never heals damage.

The evidence that playing American football can cause life-long brain damage and premature death is already incontrovertible. Anne McKee, who studies chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), has found easy to recognize signs of abnormal protein in 76 of the 79 brains of NFL players she has been able to study. The youngest was 19.

It can take several decades before a football player develops premature dementia and even more painful years may pass before he dies. Bewildered as his damaged brains fails, he may turn to substance abuse or even abuse those he once loved. One NFL player spent the last two years of his life unable to walk or to feed himself. A slow undignified death is the emotional and financial price extracted by American football.

After 20 years of studious denial the NFL is paying $765 million to former players who filed a class action suit.  The NFL accepts that one third of all players will develop cognitive defects.

Smoking is an amazing powerful addiction and in a way I think we may be going too far hounding smokers into the street. But even smoking, however nasty, does not kill not 76 out of 79 people who smoke. Tobacco, like the NFL, is also a highly profitable industry. The smokers didn’t want to accept the dangers and the manufacturers didn’t want to lose their profits. Eventually expensive law suits turned the tide. It will be the same with the NFL which is likely to go bankrupt before a tsunami of multibillion dollar law suits.

We will have a Football-Free campus. The question is when. Berkeley is a natural leader and we should work to be first Football-Free campus, instead of waiting another 20 or 40 years.

When the evidence is so compelling and the sums of money so large, universities may find it impossible to avoid a costly and embarrassing litigation. The NCAA recognizes that college football players are three times more likely than the general population to develop CTE. The NCAA has set up a $70 million fund to cover diagnostic expenses, but not treatment.

Already lawyers are advertising on the internet for college football players, or their loved ones, to contact them. Cal doesn’t pay the players, but Football coach Sonny Dykes’ seven-year contract is reported to be worth $9.4 million. We may find clever lawyers saying the Regents were culpable in permitting young men to systematically and repeatedly scramble that soggy jelly inside their skull.

There are other, safer ways to enjoy a testosterone rush. Baseball is popular in Korea. Indians and Pakistanis riot over cricket, even if it takes days to finish a match. Studies show that old men playing dominoes in France get a testosterone high when they play equally old men in the next village.

Berkeley needs a new rallying cry – “Stop Bears!”

I wrote this blog two  months ago but then decided to ponder the topic more before publishing. Today (Sunday Nov 9, 2014) The New York Time Magazine ran a piece “Is football the next tobacco,” so I decided not to wait any longer.

Comments to “Why not a Football-Free Campus?

  1. What a topic! And it’s something I have thought about myself for a long time; well the what if there was no football part period not just on college campuses. What a scary thought! It can definitely happened, but it would take a lot of litigation and legislation. The sport doesn’t just happen on the field. There are literally millions of people dependant on the sport. From coaches, trainers, football dept. staff, grounds keepers, security, concessions stand staff, stadium staff, scalpers, tv analysts, logistics, event organisers, fund raising boosters, football equipment manufacturers, people who manufacture textiles outside the U.S. (shoes, cleats, jerseys, team clothes/gear ,bags, caps, etc), local college town businesses that rely on the student body/alums on game-day, going down the pipeline to the high school level coaches that are pressured to have successful programs to supply the collegiate level; the list can go on and on. The point is for me, I was and still am a huge college football fan; more than the NFL. But after years for retrospect I see the game as the ancient Roman spectacle of the Coliseum. You see it in the design of the stadiums, how the Gladiators ( I mean football teams) always enter from the bowels of the arena. How after a week of preparing for battle, they are left in a trance leaving them ready to fight whether in speech to hype up the team or a pre-game scuffle usually with a rival school. All the while the Plebs in the stands and the Patricians in the Alumni/Booster box cheer on their favoured team or Gladiator. Sound familiar? Though American Football came from Rugby, its form of entertainment descended from an archaic form of barbarism ironically from what was then thought to be the most civilised culture in the western world. Deep I know. One more food for thought. What would you do to channel all that testosterone, late teenage angst coupled with freak-like athleticism, and a tunnel vision mind set to get to the NFL? Also how would young men predominantly from poor single mother homes do for a living, let alone get their college degree? Many of them are the first in their family to attend a university. This could take thousands of poor black athletes back to the days of the street car boxer. Maybe College Basketball will have 50 team rosters playing year-round. Enough of the sarcasm, what I’m try to babble about is that it is possible to have a football-free society, but its a very big ball of yarn that has to be untangled. And most importantly ,how do you make useful thousands of young men whom might not want to join the military, who come from impoverished backgrounds and environments, who have the pressure of legacy if football is in the family, who have young families of their own to take care of, who for some without football their SAT/ACT scores won’t get them in, who basically don’t anything else in the world but football or given a chance in the League they would stay as long as Favre? These thing have weighed heavy on my mind. It would be a GREAT momentous shift in American thinking to save these bright, hopeful , and ambitious young men to be the greatest generation ever to turn their backs on football and somehow someway make their lives, their families’ lives, and their communities more than just about a game.

  2. Football glamour and money is not worth your joints and brain. My son played, he was lucky that all he got was a broken arm.

  3. I agree with your article, but it’s not good to compare Football with smoking. And football is not the next tobacco.

    • American football is a peculiar evolutionary branch, of the martial sports, involving kicking, as the nominally important way, to advance a winning strategy.

      Of course, US football is more about who throws, catches, and runs, with the pointy-ended ovalesque ball, of several designs, employed, during the exchange, of opportunities, to advance that ball, into an opposing team’s end-zone.

      People who would simply ban football, anywhere it is successful just do not have all their oars, in the water, but perhaps these have two or more wheels, in the sand, while foolishly attempting, to drive.

      Hey, in US football, we learn other Americans aren’t dependable, for complex cooperation, a vital lesson, somewhat disproved, by top-flight footballers, such as at any PAC-12 school program, but don’t expect much, at community colleges, which vary, widely, at competence.

      When you want to ban football, at CAL, this is a display, of dementia, but when a professor, who claims planning offers this, in lieu of some important planning poser, we have a game, called GIT.

      The GIT in question gets off the field, pitch, or whatever, and he does not return, with any more nonsense, where planning is needed.

  4. As for waiting, I suggest football always should have featured ambidextrous throwing, and I developed this, after I was 30, I suggested this, severally, and the football establishment has continued, to crash.

    In fact, Bill Cooper, of the Kapp staff was the first, to totally ignore the strategic implications, of my now-ancient suggestion, backed, by personal research, to run left or right, and throw, with the left or right arm.

    In fact, CAL students don’t really play all that much football, the grads I know don’t throw or catch, for exercise, and since we were under egregious surveillance, by people who burn us, while they can play USC special teams, on anyone’s life, EXCUUUUUSE ME, if all of you are too obtuse, to throw with either arm, IF you should be daring enough, to get on a field, with a game, going.

  5. How can you say Berkeley would be the first football free campus? Boston University and Brandeis University have long been football free.

  6. This is a cute essay, but the unfortunately the logic of your argument equating smoking with football is flawed.

    The reason Berkeley is a smoke-free campus is not to protect smokers from the dangers of their habit. America prides itself on civil liberty, and adults can do pretty much anything to their bodies, regardless of risk. The reason Berkeley is (tobacco) smoke free is to prevent the harm that second hand smoke inflicts on innocent bystanders who have not chosen to partake in this risky activity. Having lived in Europe the last three years, I am very envious of California’s anti-second hand smoke laws. The dangers of second hand smoke are well documented and it is amazing that Europe ignores them. Second-hand football, on the other hand, hurts no one.

    To ban adults from undertaking risky activities of their own choosing, with no risk of harm to innocent bystanders, is un-American. One might try to make an argument that people hurting themselves places a burden on taxpayers and the health care system, but again here smoking and football do not compare. A handful of rich ex-football players with neurodegenerative diseases are a drop in the bucket compared to the poor and uninsured masses suffering with chronic COPD and lung cancer.

    I honestly no not understand how someone of your intelligence could have overlooked this flaw in their logic in favor of sensationalism. What other risky activities would you like to ban?

    • First of all, Professor Potts didn’t suggest that football be made illegal– only that Cal become a football-free campus. I assume people would always be free to go play some football in the park, and probably to have rec teams, etc. He’s suggesting it shouldn’t be a part of the university’s culture, however.

      Secondly, I do think there is an effect of second-hand football. Kids and adults alike idolize football players at both the NCAA and NFL level. This encourages kids to join the football team in high school or even earlier. You really can’t deny that as long as football is 1) dangerous and 2) extremely popular, there is going to exist a downstream effect of convincing others to join the sport.

  7. cal’s football program does not contribute financially to the university. it has to be subsidized.

    affirmative action is required to let many football players be admitted to cal. yet everyone screams when a 4.0 person of color is let in.

    i’m fine if youngsters want to play football, but they should not be able to come back and sue the university (or the NFL) for complications when they get older. they know full well, especially now, what they’re getting into.

    • Well, The football team does contribute to the university. GREATLY.

      The football team makes so much money that it supports 26 other sports, while Basketball supports itself.

      In fact, Most recently, The UC Berkeley Athletic Department made 4 million dollars surplus, with a total net subsidy of $3.206 Million (3%)( That means Cal supported 26 “non-Revenue sports” (ie womens swimming, water polo, rugby, womens field hockey, Golf, womens basketball, etc) with only $3 million from the university’s $2.138 Billion budget – – (or, in perspective, Cal operated 15 women’s sports at 0.1% of the total university budget). Amazing that football can cover so much of the cost.

      Compare that to, say, UC Davis, that does not operate a financially self supporting football team, that uses 17 million net of student fees to support 70% of its costs. I am sure you can find UCSB’s ridiculous deficit, and they dont operate a football team.

      Sorry to give you this information, but perhaps you can look less ignorant when the topic comes up again in the future.

      • In Fiscal Year 2012-13, UC Berkeley Intercollegiate Athletics received a subsidy of $7,567,235 ($1,446,539 from student fees and $6,120,696 from direct institutional support) and kept $1,480,424 for itself. See the Intercollegiate Department of Athletics Statement of Revenues and Expenses for Year Ended June 30, 2013 (

        UC Berkeley Intercollegiate Athletics has drained campus coffers of roughly $100 million over the last decade, funds that could have been used instead to support the university’s core mission of “undergraduate education, graduate and professional education, research, and other kinds of public service.”

        Moreover, financial liability for the recent renovation of the football stadium is enormous: UC borrowed half a billion dollars and with interest this is a $1.25 billion dollar obligation that the University must pay. The Wall Street Journal wrote an article about it.

        The debt service is ultimately the obligation of the University of California, since the financing is from general revenue bonds issued by UC. The state auditor reported in July 2011 that the “university pledged tuition revenues to help achieve better interest rates” (see page 55 on the report) and Reuters reported that a “key rating driver” of UC bonds is the university’s “ability to increase tuition and fees.”

        The $14,822,355 line item entitled “Debt Service – CMS/SAHPC” on the Intercollegiate Department of Athletics Statement of Revenues and Expenses for Year Ended June 30, 2013 mentioned above is actually the only the very first of what will be 100 annual payments that sum to $1.25 billion. Based on my reading of the chart on page 48 of the report “Evaluation of Financing for U.C. Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium and Simpson Center for Student-Athlete High Performance,” issued by the university on March 29, 2013, the bond repayment schedule is approximately:

        2013: 15M
        2014-2031: 18yrs @ 18M = 324M
        2032: 26M
        2033: 28M
        2034-2038: 5yrs @ 30M = 150M
        2039-2044: 6yrs @ 37M = 222M
        2045: 24M
        2046: 34M
        2047-2050: 4 yrs @ 28M = 112M
        2051-2053: 3 yrs @ 7M = 21M
        2054-2111: 59 yrs @ 3.645M = 215M
        2112: 79 M
        Sub-total: 1.250 Billion

        • B. Barsky, your argument is biased. You are completely ignoring the revenue side of the equation. Cal’s share of the Pacific 12 conference net revenues alone is $21,330,591. (See this.)

          As well, the financing for the stadium was necessary in order to retrofit this facility for the safety of spectators, students and staff.

  8. I applaud the wishful thinking outside the box. While we are star gazing, why not a tuition free campus. Can be sure that would give a lot of students and their parents a testosterone high! Also would relieve a lot of stress and we all know stress is right up there with smoking, drinking, drugs and football.

  9. The President of Stanford University received a letter from his Cal counterpart saying “Are you ready to have football abolished? … We cannot proceed as individual institutions … Is there no way in which we can unite for common action?”

    It’s true! It really happened!

    But it wasn’t John Hennessy and Nicholas Dirks — it was David Jordan and Benjamin Wheeler, and it was in December 1905. The two leaders agreed to abolish football, although it was reinstated a decade later.

  10. As a point of reference the University of Chicago ended its football program in 1939 after a long winning program led by Alonzo Stagg. Its been done and can be done again if there is the will. Our mission is to educate students though i am fond of the adage sound body sound mind. But this can be accomplished with club sports and intramurals

  11. And yet the average NFL player lives longer than the average American.

    There are, I am sure, issues with head trauma in football. Probably almost as much as there are in women’s soccer – the sport with the most concussions among youth sports.

    But, there are also a ton of other benefits from the playing of sports. Such as exercise, commitment to fitness, etc. Football is a brutal game, but that is what keeps men interested in playing it.

    Ask yourself what the average football player would be doing if not playing football. What is the future for most men who play professional football? The greatest number of profession football players are african american. Compare the early death rates for football players vs others in the same cohort – the football players live a much more health, active and longer life. In any event, good luck with your crusade.

    • Excellent point about all the benefits of football. It teaches teamwork, dedication, commitment, and many other life lessons. Plus, the Cal-Stanford football game is a rich part of our school’s tradition & history.

  12. Actually, due to demographic shifts (once the old Blues die off) there will be a natural shift to ping pong, badminton, and cricket.

  13. Recent articles have suggested that football is the next tobacco.  While football is damaging to society, it is nowhere near as insidious as fracking.  Football threatens those who participate. Fracking harms everyone. 
    Five percent of all newly fracked wells leak methane during their first year, and fifty percent leak within ten years.  Each methane molecule is twenty times worse than carbon dioxide for exacerbating global warming.  Current estimates indicate that in the southwestern USA a warmer climate will
    reduce annual rainfall to half its current level threatening populations and industry.  Already increased tornado, hail, and hurricane damage stemming from warmer average temperatures have boosted home and business insurance rates by as much as 30% per year. 
    Almost daily, a new health study links fracking to birth defects, cancer, or respiratory diseases. 
    Fracking has now contaminated aquifers in three states.  Within a hundred years, 1500 miles of aquifers will no longer be usable for home consumption (during a time of increased drought). 
    Each new fracking job contaminates about ten million gallons of fresh water, about 1% of current water available.   The polluted water is permanently unusable.
    Fracking waste water disposal is causing earthquakes in at least ten states.  Damage is cumulative as more and more water is injected into the earth.  Citizens with damaged homes are not compensated by fracking companies.
    Unquestionably, fracking is the next tobacco, full of lies and distortions by industry and government and affecting everyone on the planet. 
    Society needs to move away from fossil fuels and greatly expand its usage of truly clean energy sources such as wind and solar, sources whose prices are already competitive with fossil fuel electricity and will soon be lower than fossil fuel energy.

  14. a man w/ balls, this is the home of the brave, not some ‘ football makes one a man or not’ enterprise. Too bad Berkeley is for Conservationism. They brandish the liberal term objectively but factions do not agree with a capitalist game of up-onemanship, which is opposed to unity.

  15. When the prof learns Cal does not play in the NFL…We’re not in India, Pakistan or France…learns Cal would not be the first, second or fiftieth to eliminate football. A course on American history and a course on the history of the campus regarding athletics would be a good start for a logic-less rant that tries to push buttons of those passionate about athletics on the Cal campus, but actually exposes a ignorant professor from a foreign country and culture whose examples most closely fit the apples and oranges category. I would think a Cal professor would at least be familiar with the culture of the country he resides and the campus which he teaches!!!
    It’s incredible he claims to know the person for linking smoking to cancer when a German in the 1920’s is widely credited to be the first to discover the link. He should also learn about football rule changes, advances in equipment which will undoubtedly make injuries to the brain very rare. Prof, I understand you don’t like the attention or money football attracts, but that’s not an excuse for a blatant ignorance of history and the culture you criticize.

  16. Professor Potts,

    In effort to maintain the dignity of a great American tradition, I would like to respectfully disagree with your outlandish request. The game of football provides a young student the wherewithal to stand up for himself and transition into manhood. Teamwork-inducing contact sports, such as football, give a young man the ability to fight alongside his brothers, earn the mindset of a winner, and build a solid foundation for the rest of his life. Great men like Aaron Rodgers who contriutbed greatly to this school would be outraged at the growing support of abolishing football from collegiate athletics. Personally, I think you are a very intelligent individual, but I believe your efforts should be directed towards issues worth a crap.



  17. There must be wisdom in classes of 1963, though my degree from the other coast. Two issues here on football: the brutal game it’s become, and the excesses of cost and substandard admissions. More than a century ago Theodore Roosevelt saved the college game by demanding change or extinction. Not sure our sitting President up to that. But Cal should become a leader in its own right here; downsize the game (literally and figuratively) to preserve it. Otherwise we should let go.

    Prof. Potts and others, please see

  18. Thank you Prof. Potts, it’s about time that someone on the faculty made this point loud and clear.

    Education of Californians is supposed our paramount priority, not wasting $400Million+- on a field that prevents 1000s of qualified California students from getting the education they have earned the right to obtain.

    • Are there any facts in your hating. Football is a net benefit to the University, monetarily. Why do all the academic benefactors want to be wined and dined at football games. There aren’t 1000 student athletes on campus and a vast majority of student athletes are “qualified” So when you start telling the truth a real discussion can begin!

  19. Professor Potts,

    Alas, you should have published this fanciful piece last year, when the Bears were 1-11.

    Or, were you serious about Cal leading the way in the abolition of college football, in 1937, a couple of years before Robert Hutchins pulled the plug at the University of Chicago.


  20. But even smoking, however nasty, does not kill not 76 out of 79 people who smoke.

    The analogy does not work out logically, because you haven’t established that the McKee study is representative of all football players. I’d suggest removing it because it undermines your otherwise interesting essay.

    I think we should rethink football for another reason: it probably is not profitable. We subsidize it in complex and subtle ways. Why not scrap it and invest in less violent sports?

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