Don’t Shut Down Harvard Athletics

originally published in the Harvard Crimson in fall of 2015, this article was written in response to an OpEd suggesting that the school down their football program

The death of Andre Smith, the 17-year-old football player who passed away last month, is a tragedy. Its impetus for the recent article (which calls for the shutting down of Harvard football) is understandable, if not commendable.

But if we’re going to dismantle the Harvard football program, then ice hockey, rugby, lacrosse, wrestling, and soccer have to go too. Women’s soccer is routinely the number two sport in terms of concussions incurred per player. Gymnastics, where concussions are infrequent but potentially devastating, might also have to go. Two of the worst concussions I’ve seen came from unsuspecting women’s volleyball players being hit in the head. Volleyball, out.

When we ask to cut football programs, we’re taking the first step in cutting athletics entirely, assuming their risk outweighs their net worth—logistically unlikely and, in my opinion, unnecessary.

Referring back to the original article, I cannot find the study which conclusively states that playing football leads to “brain damage, in the form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, post-concussion syndromedepression, and other long-term head-related injuries.” The really scary stuff (CTE) occurs mostly in NFL players—that is, in less than 0.1 percent of the about 1.8 million football players (summing those in Pop Warnerhigh school, the NCAA, and the NFL) in the United States, which seems statistically negligible. Moreover, NFL players move further off the grid with the length of their season (last year the Patriots played 19 games, almost twice the length of Harvard’s 10-game season). And if twice as many games per season doesn’t further separate those from which most data is collected, consider that the average severity of impact is incalculably greater. Clearly, NFL players are in a league of their own.

There’s no long term study demonstrating the effects of a high school or college football career. There should be.

The article listed depression as a side-effect of football. The depression referred to is probably a symptom of frustration regarding decreasing cognitive performance, which can be exacerbated by the power of suggestion and accompanying stress. Depression is complicated, and not purely physical, so let’s take that one off the table.

I would ask those who are calling to shut down football to listen to millions of coaches and players who maintain positive relationships to the sport—not biased opinions, but stories from the front. Last season, after a close game, I heard my name called and a short man in suit and tie found my arm to pull me close. With tears in his eyes he thanked me for the opportunity I—and the game—had given his son (his son who, though he wore himself out all week in practice and cheered his heart out all evening, never passed the sideline—this was not the father of a star, only a participant). With humility, I listened to the story of a boy who was depressed, lonely, and socially awkward; I heard about how incredibly hard it is for a father to watch his son sit in his room all weekend, wishing he had even one friend to call. Our handshake turned into a quick hug after he expressed that football had brought them both out of a place too dark to mention.

harvard fall.jpg I wonder if anyone would suggest dismantling athletics after spending time with the mother of another student who, at 14 years old, was one more suspension away from getting kicked out of school. It’s a powerful thing to hear her explain, tearfully grateful, how football and the mentors it provided had saved her son from himself. I should mention that this former athlete spent last summer interning at the White House and will graduate this spring from a top-tier college.

On homecoming you can stop by any number of Cambridge bars and listen to old friends telling stories about each other, about victories and losses, impersonating their coaches and feeling a warmth kindled by a bond which few can understand. This real world experience cannot be translated into the fantasy football interface. We’re not talking about an appreciation for the game, or even the deepest possible fandom. We’re talking about a non-traditional learning experience that is beyond definition, even (or perhaps especially) by those who have experienced it first hand.

I’m not claiming football is safe, or that concussions aren’t a real concern. It’s not; they are. What I’m saying is that we cannot defeat an issue if we keep swinging at its shadow.

We cannot get rid of football unless we’re prepared to cut most sports. And we cannot limit concussions until we make sports safer: We have to notice the warning signs faster, we have to prepare the body to brace, we have to coach an athlete to put herself in safe positions as often as possible, and we have to take rehabilitation seriously. We have to be better teachers and coaches.

The easy response is to say that sports have an issue, get rid of them—it’s harder to say that sports have an issue, so let’s fix them. There’s a way, if we stop scapegoating and gather the will. There’s good work still to be done.

Go Crimson.

Since the writing of this article, my research has continued and my perspectives have widened.

I still don’t think football is inherently safe, but I still believe the dangers are significantly overblown, mostly by people speaking outside their realm of understanding.

Stay tuned – we will be publishing plenty more on this topic in the coming months.