Sunday, 18 August 2013

Civilizing College Football?


Is it possible? Would it be worth the efforts? My old fashioned Humanism still prevails on this question: higher education is just that, anything that corrupts it is suspect. Now what could I learn from that contentious New Yorker genius, Malcolm Gladwell. I suspect that if someone other than my favorite journalist, the Indian American Fareed Zacharia, raised the question, I’d opt out. But his GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE (Sundays, 13:00 CET) is as required as Sunday Mass in my altar boy years. I was not disappointed. Four years ago Gladwell declared war against this brain concussion “sport” by comparing it to dog-fighting.

Let’s start our discussion closer to home—with the suicide by hanging of Penn’s co-captain Owen Thomas, aged 21, in April 2010. His missionary Allentown parents were shocked to discover that more deceased NFL players died by the same concussion induced brain disease that motivated Owen. Boston University doctors examined his brain tissue and discovered mild chronic traumatic encephalopathy, an Alzheimer’s like disease that impairs normal brain functions and eventually kills brain cells. Now researchers couldn’t definitively link his disease to his death, but they noted the pattern of suicidal behavior in CTE victims, including former NFL players Andre Waters and Terry Long.

Owen’s mother, Katherine Brearley, said on a BU video that her son didn’t have a big concussion “so I hope there is some research into what happens in a developing young person with a lot of little jolts to the brain.” In CTE a toxic protein builds in the brain, with early symptoms including memory impairment, instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control. Dementia and death can follow. 

On their way home after signing “Gift of Life” papers, they got a call from Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler who retired at 24 because of multiple concussions. Co-founder of Sports Legacy Institute, he wrote “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis From the NFL to Youth Leagues” (2006). Rev. Brearley gave Nowinski permission to examine Owen’s brain. Later Ann McKee, BU associate professor of neurology and pathology, revealed that her son’s brain had a disease associated with repeated head trauma. Penn expressed their sorrow but would only reduce practice seasons from five to two times a week!

Gladwell believes the head injury issue is what wiil reduce college football—fear of injury suits. But he also feels that only the Ivies can lead lesser U’s to minimize college football. Stanford in the heart of Silicon Valley has so upped football philanthropy that its influence now equals the Ivies.

It’s my belief that football infantilized our not so Higher Education. (Think of Joe Palermo as Penn State’s hero! He may be an ideal Grandpa, but he was a zero as an university ideal.) Not to forget the louts that suffered him.) Similarly Excessive TV has diminished the effectiveness of our primary and secondary education. Prepared only for a Higher Playpen.

European Universities have not been so distracted. Neither are those on the emerging continents. It’s a defect that America’s penchant for the playpen that has crippled our civilization. We played touch football at Holy Rosary Academy and Sacred Heart Seminary. No concussions and deeper conclusions. Bad habits are much easier to slide into than to escape. Gladwell is wise to keep tooting his warning horn, and Zacharia is thoughtful to give him a platform. Second only to the obliteration of our middle class by our greedy 1 percenters is the infantilizing of education as a destructive force in our common future. 100 yard penalties to all the glib fools that got our educational system in such a mess.

ALERT: the NFL has declared a concussion crisis. 

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review.

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