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Tough Times Ahead for Football

There are some troubling rumbles on the horizon for football as a sport.

Forget the pointless wrangling over the BCS. Whether there are two, four, or eight teams playing off for a championship, someone will be left out and be right to complain about it. If it could make more money by having a playoff instead of all those bowls, the NCAA would find a way to make it happen.

The most interesting news from the last few weeks was not Alabama spanking Florida, or Colt McCoy's mentally flatulent clock management against Nebraska, or even the ongoing prospect of a Super Bowl matching two unbeaten teams (a result that would forever end the ungracious gloating of the '72 Dolphins). No, the story that caught my eye was the decision by Northeastern University and Hofstra University to discontinue football programs that had been in existence for seventy-seven and sixty-nine years respectively.

These two schools considered the value of football in an educational context, and determined that whatever dubious benefits it might add were more than offset by the substantial costs. Hofstra's press release noted that the program cost $4.5 million dollars - chicken feed when boosters are shoving it into Nick Saban's pocket, perhaps, but a large chunk of money when it comes from shrinking university coffers. "In the long run," Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz said, "we can touch and improve the lives of more students by investing in new and enhanced academic initiatives and increasing funds for need-based scholarships."

Football is by far the most expensive sport for colleges, requiring playing equipment, training facilities, and a large number of athletes, whether on full or partial scholarships. With endowments plummeting and donors harder to find, expect more schools to look closely at the gridiron and ponder eliminating these costs altogether.

If those institutions are concerned about the welfare of their young charges, they must also pay attention to recent developments in research into football and head trauma. As described by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, some former football players exhibited brain damage associated with second stage Alzheimer's, in particular the presence of the protein that builds up in brain cells and ultimately shuts them down. That protein can only be detected in an autopsy; the players ranged widely in age and in cause of death, and included a teenager whose brain showed decay usually associated with old age.

The NFL has become alarmed about concussions this year, and rightly so. Each concussion a player suffers makes him more susceptible to future concussions, and makes the subsequent ones more damaging. The league has ordered that a player who shows any signs of a concussion must be removed from the game or practice and not allowed to return that day.

But a study at the University of North Carolina, described in Gladwell's article, suggests this may not be enough. Researchers put sensors into the helmets of all UNC football players, and measured the g-forces of every collision. During two-a-day practices in 2004, one player took two shots to the head within ten minutes that registered at 80-gs and 98-gs. (If you drove your car into a wall at 25 miles per hour while not wearing a seat belt, Gladwell explains, the force of your head hitting the windshield would be about 100 gs.) After these two collisions, the player took a 64-g hit in the evening session, then later in the practice a mere glancing blow finally caused a concussion - not by its own force, but by the cumulative effect of the hits. These were not extraordinary events; they were the normal result of football practice, particularly for linemen.

When was the last time you watched a pro or college football game in which someone didn't get hurt? The gargantuan shells that encase the athletes make it easy not to think of them as human beings. That illusion is shattered when they limp off the field, or when they are taken off in "the cart." The implications of the UNC study and the brain examinations suggest that even those who seem unscathed are being hurt in ways that may not show up for years.

How long before this becomes a major liability issue for colleges and high schools? If the pros are taking precautions, the levels below are on notice that they should be even more vigilant, since they are dealing with younger, less developed bodies and brains. If the NFL requires equipment that better protects the brain - not that such equipment exists yet - how can schools not follow suit, regardless of the cost?

Hofstra and Northeastern may be the tip of the iceberg. As costs and issues mount, and as more studies provide further neurological information, a lot of school administrators could see football as a headache they'd rather do without.

 

Jeff Neuman is a sportswriter and editor, and co-author of A Disorderly Compendium of Golf. His columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday.

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