Phi Beta Cons

College Football and the Brain Injury Problem

Are colleges and universities taking reasonable steps to protect the safety of the student-athletes who help them rake in money by playing big-time sports — football in particular?

There is good reason to think not. The recent movie “Concussion” starring Will Smith playing Dr. Bennet Omalu focuses on the dubious response from the NFL to evidence that players are suffering serious brain problems (in particular, chronie traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE). But the problem is not, of course, confined to the pro game. The possibility for long-run damage begins in high school and continues throughout college. What have colleges and the NCAA done in light of the mounting evidence that repeated concussions and milder “dings” can cause severe injury?

That is the subject of today’s Pope Center article by Stephanie Keaveney. She points to recent research at Boston University’s CTE Center showing that “even players who don’t exhibit any obvious signs of head trauma may be subjecting themselves to slow-developing, irreparable brain damage.” A class-action suit was brought against the NCAA over head injuries in 2011 and the case was settled in 2014, with the NCAA setting up a $70 million fund for monitoring football players and a much smaller amount ($5 million) for research into this problem. Furthermore, the NCAA has put forth a set of guidelines regarding head injuries, but they amount to nothing more than suggestions. Infractions carry no penalties and Keaveney points to a study showing that “universities still act outside the protocols on a regular basis.”

The one conference that has apparently taken some meaningful steps in this regard is the Ivy League. Good for the Ivies, but the problems are more severe in conferences where you have really gigantic players bashing into each other.  Big football conferences wouldn’t put themselves at any competitive disadvantage just to minimize the prospects of long-term injury to players.

Keaveney rightly concludes, “College exists to improve minds, not damage them.” Coaches and athletic directors will no doubt continue to pooh-pooh this, but they don’t actually run the universities. Do they?

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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