Saturday, January 24, 2015

Dr. Steven Miles and the Scourge of Football

Dr. Steven Miles is one of Minnesota's treasures. I first knew of him as a gerontologist (or geriatrician?) and ethicist in the early 1990s, when he spoke to a group about ageism and medical treatment, death and dying. He ran for governor on a pro-universal-health-care message in the year 2000. He came out as being bipolar during that campaign, and has advocated for more understanding of that condition.

Since then, he's traveled widely to investigate the role of doctors in torture around the world. He spoke out most recently on the CIA's torture regime.

Today he has a commentary in the Star Tribune calling for the abolition of high school football and rugby.
The evidence is compelling and disturbing. The risk of traumatic brain injury from full frontal contact sports is unavoidable, even though it can be somewhat reduced by headgear, rule changes or even electronic sensors that measure head slams as they happen.

The Illinois High School Association faces a class-action suit for concussions. (Young brains are more, not less, likely to be injured.) The number of high school students showing up for these sports has fallen by half, because parents are steering kids to safer activities. National Football League (NFL) players have sued their league for concealing the injuries. The tragic suicides and disabilities among pro and school athletes mount.

Even Mike Ditka, who could fairly be called America’s “Mr. Football,” says he would not let his own son play. “I think the risk is worse than the reward,” Ditka said. “I really do.”

School football culture is in deep denial. Coaches and administrators know that the risk of severe brain injury is unavoidable. They know it is uninsurable. They know that the conflict of interest of team physicians is entrenched and that the sport will send players with concussions back into play with impaired judgment and therefore increased risk.

A pro career is largely a mirage that lures students. College athletes from the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division II and III rarely go pro. Fewer than 2 percent of the players on Division I teams like the University of Minnesota Gophers are offered a first-year pro contract. Only a few of those get a second year. The average pro career is less than three and a half seasons.
Parents should follow Mike Ditka's advice. Schools should stop arranging their homecoming events around football. There's a lot to change.

The rest of us can do our part by changing our lives so that we no longer watch pro football, as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates did several years ago, after the suicide of Junior Seau. No Superbowl. Not even the ads.

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