Editorial: Rethinking Tufts football

We, the managing board of the Daily, believe that our editorials this semester were outstanding. We strive to maintain a fair perspective on all issues. This piece, however, featured insufficient details on the nature of Tufts’ actions and input from the Athletics Department. Football is a complicated game — there are discussions happening on a national scale that will define the future of the sport — but our editorial would have benefitted from insights into specific details on measures already in place.

The editorial remains published online and we would like to leave the door open to future discussion and additional editorials on this important subject. And, as with any editorial, we invite readers to submit response op-eds that we would be happy to consider for publication online. We will also consider them for print, though please note that due to our printing calendar lining up with the academic calendar, op-eds wouldn’t run in print until mid-January at the earliest.

In college, Mike Webster was the best center in the Big Ten. He was drafted in 1974 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he served as starting center for 150 straight games, bringing the team to four Super Bowl victories. At 260 pounds, “Iron Mike” was the toughest player on the field; he played bare-fisted in freezing weather and took injuries in stride.

At age 50, Webster died of a heart attack — homeless, divorced, and having suffered from dementia, amnesia, depression, and acute bone and muscle pain for years. After his death, he was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease found in those who have had multiple head injuries. Webster’s doctors believed his disability was directly linked to multiple football-related head injuries, and they are continuing to diagnose a number of other former players with CTE. The autopsies led to an eventual lawsuit resulting in a multi-million dollar settlement by the NFL and a fierce nationwide debate on the unspoken risks of football.

The data is in, and the potential life-long damage of football is becoming ever more apparent. Studies by researchers at Boston University have found evidence of CTE in 99 percent of former NFL players studied (110 of 111 brains), including one who had never had a concussion, as well as 91 percent of college football athletes and 21 percent of high school players. CTE is characterized by tiny tangles of tau protein clustered around blood vessels; defective tau is associated with CTE as well as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. While the study represents a biased sample, based on brains donated by families of individuals who likely showed potential signs of CTE, it is still a breakthrough in this area of study, demonstrating the inextricable link between football and brain damage.

A study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that 11 percent of former NFL players suffer from clinical depression, with a threefold risk in those with a history of three or four concussions.

Though Webster’s case is extreme — a result of years of tough professional football — young athletes are far from immune to lifelong brain damage.

A recent study in the medical journal Translational Psychiatry showed that kids who played football before age 12 were more than twice as likely to have impaired mood and behavior later in life. And in one of the Boston University studies, while the high school players studied showed mild symptoms, both the professional and college players showed severe symptoms. Many high schools have dropped football due to well-founded worries about its effects on their players, and at the college level, even in the NESCAC, the hits are often even harder.

Though football is an American pastime, the most popular form of entertainment nationwide, is the harm it can cause to players worth the risk?

Tufts should say no. As a research university with a medical school and as a supposedly progressive institution, Tufts should join the movement to challenge football as it exists currently. With resources to de-stigmatize and cope with mental illness, it is imperative that Tufts also challenge the risks football poses to students’ mental health. Radically restructuring the football program and investing in resources to make the sport safer would send a strong message to other educational institutions that students’ health and safety is a priority.

Aside from their associated health risks, college football programs — especially at the non-Div. I level — are notoriously difficult to maintain. Universities such as Boston University, the University of Vermont and Northeastern University are a few schools who have disbanded their teams, some of whom cited financial strain. For most, the financial costs of upkeep for football teams far outweigh their potential revenue.

However, many schools have continually maintained and even added football programs in recent years in an effort to drive alumni donations and raise their profiles among prospective students. University officials also say football is a source of school pride, bringing the community together through games and homecoming events. But football isn’t the only way to achieve those goals; there are many other programs, such as the dance and theater programs, that could fulfill this role.

Tufts should critically examine the football program and work to make it safer. Simple steps like strengthening concussion protocols, continuing to work with partner institutions and eliminating kickoffs — a change that is already being discussed in the NFL — are necessary to ensure that our program is safe for students. If none of these avenues lead to risk reduction, Tufts should re-evaluate the place of its football team altogether.

As evidence mounts and debate kicks up, there’s a long road ahead for American football. But Tufts can be on the right side of history by taking a stand.