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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.