Nov 10, 2012; Austin, TX, USA; Detailed view of a Nike football on the field before a game between the Texas Longhorns and Iowa State Cyclones at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Concussion awareness in college football


Saturday, September 28, 2013.  It’s a beautiful day in Columbus, Ohio.  The temperature has plateaued in the 70′s and only the most sporadic of wind gusts are present—just to remind us that it’s Autumn along the banks of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers.  The city is bustling, and the campus itself has come alive in a way only a college football home game in the Big Ten could attain.  After the better part of a half a day of eating, drinking, and celebrating being members of the Buckeye community, over 100,000 fans begin entering Ohio Stadium—where 4th ranked Ohio State will be taking on the 23rd ranked Wisconsin Badgers.

Of the 105,826 fans said to be in attendance, at least 30,000 were likely students currently enrolled in the Ohio State University.  These student fans are some of the best and brightest the future of the United States has to offer; according to OSU admissions, 89% of Buckeye admittees were in the top 25% of their high school graduating classes.

Just five minutes before kickoff, the atmosphere inside Ohio Stadium can best be described as raucous.  From the Block “O” to the general admission cheap seats, ticket holders are  eager for Ohio State’s first major football test of the season.  The coin toss takes place, but no one really realizes it due to the proverbial electricity inside the stadium.  Which team actually won the toss, I’m unsure, but Ohio State will be kicking off to Wisconsin to start the first half in a matter of moments.

The Wisconsin special teams unit takes the field, and redshirt Senior safety and return man Kyle Zuleger confidently awaits the kickoff from Ohio State’s Drew Basil.  Zuleger is the son of Tom and Tracie Zuleger.  Aside from being a member of an elite football program, the ambitious Zuleger is double majoring in human ecology, with a focus in community and non-profit leadership, and history.

The referees give the okay to start the game.  As Basil begins his kicking routine, a significant number of Ohio State fans—in tight unison—collectively cry out “O-H-I-O, Rip his Fucking Head Off.”  Kyle Zuleger returns the 65 yard kickoff for 17 yards, and to the dismay of the chanters, he leaves the field of play with his head safely connected to his neck.

During every home game, fans of Ohio State and the University of Kansas both share something in common with the Queen of Hearts from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: they all bizarrely command that others behead people on their own behalf.  This is not intended to be a flippant comparison; rather, this is instead meant to directly question why highly educated sports fans—whether in jest, highly-sophomoric celebration, or otherwise—find it appropriate to voice a common desire for head injuries in a sport with an uncertain future that is plagued with concussion-related injuries.

To a certain extent, we have known that head injuries are a dangerous thing since as far back as 900 BC—when Assyrian soldiers were equipping themselves with helmets crafted out of either thick leather hide or bronze alloy to protect themselves from blunt weapon blows to the head.  Nearly 3,000 years later, we now have a better scientific understanding of why head injuries are such a grave issue.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as “CTE,” is a progressive degenerative brain disease found in individuals with a history of concussions and other types of head injuries.  Although clinical studies regarding CTE symptoms are still in their respective infancies, significant evidence exists linking a series of concussions with depression, suicidal thoughts, memory loss, aggression, and disturbance of motor function.

Seemingly every day, NFL players—both living and deceased—are being linked to CTE.  Former Chicago Bears quarterback and sufferer of multiple concussions Jim McMahon lives out his life today with dementia and has experienced suicidal urges.  Meanwhile, Junior Seau, one of the greatest linebackers in football history, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with an unregistered .357 -caliber revolver.  We can’t say for certain that McMahon is afflicted with CTE because an autopsy is needed for definitive proof.  But the strictest of burdens of proof aside, we still know that concussions are the cause of McMahon’s plight.  Unlike McMahon, an autopsy and extensive study from the National Institute of Health have proven that Seau had CTE.  And on December 13, the body of Jovan Belcher—the 22-year-old Kansas City Chiefs linebacker who murdered his girlfriend and then killed himself last year—was exhumed for CTE testing.  Few doubt that CTE will be found to be present after the autopsy.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy stating that correlation does not necessitate causation.  In other words, it is important to note that just because Junior Seau had CTE does not mean that he shot himself in the chest because of CTE.  Likewise, if Jovan Belcher did in fact have CTE, that does not mean that his murder-suicide was a result of his CTE.  In similar fashion, just because pro bowl Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson committed suicide via self-inflicted gun shot wound does not mean that concussions are to blame.  And there’s no objective proof that longtime Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Lineman Terry Long killed himself by ingesting antifreeze due to CTE suffering.  The same can be said for pro bowl Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, who committed suicide by shooting himself in the head, or veteran Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling for that matter, who also shot himself dead.  Correlation might not be the same thing as causation, but how many former NFL stars burdened with CTE taking their own lives is it going to take before we start taking head injuries seriously?

It didn’t take the concussion controversy in football to get me to realize that concussions are a critical problem plaguing society.  As a stout professional wrestling fan growing up, I was overwrought with emotion when one of my favorite wrestlers, “The Crippler” Chris Benoit, murdered his wife and son before hanging himself on June 22, 2007.  In the aftermath of the family tragedy, there was rampant speculation as to “why?”  Some suspected steroid abuse.  Others assumed a crime of passion stemming from a failing marriage.  But on September 5, 2007, leading medical experts with the Sports Legacy Institute revealed that a study of Benoit’s brain revealed the presence of CTE, and then it all started to make sense.  In hindsight, who would doubt that a man who wrestled for over 22-years and showcased a signature maneuver known as the “diving headbutt” would have life-altering traumatic brain injuries?

Criticism of concussion awareness is often centered on a misguided interpretation of the concept of paternalism.  Proponents of the preservation of football as we know it, and the unadulterated violence that comes with it, frequently argue that people should be left to make their own potentially harmful decisions.  The argument assumes that the paternalist is looking out for the best interests of the person engaging in the harmful activity.  But that is not truly how paternalism works.  Human being are self-interested actors, and there is typically little incentive for a paternalist to care about what another person does to himself.  The thing is: people worried about concussions in football are not just worried about what the concussed person is doing to himself, but also what the concussed person has the potential to do to society at large.  I worry about preventing concussions because I want to live in a world with fewer Jovan Belchers and Chris Benoits walking around freely in society as metaphorical ticking time bombs of violence.  And I worry about Ohio State fans shouting “Rip His Fucking Head Off” because they are effectively acting, inadvertently or otherwise, as something perhaps more dangerous than CTE itself: as CTE enablers.

On December 16, 2013, the Village Voice published an interview between Jessica Hopper and Jim DeRogatis, the reporter who uncovered R. Kelly’s sexual exploitation of underage girls.  The piece explicitly described each of the repulsive accusations against R. Kelly, and consequently has made many question what exactly allowed them to continue being fans of a rapist all these years.  Every few months, the ever-present debate about whether we should morally “appreciating the art but not the artist” comes up regarding the likes of Michael Jackson, Michael Vick, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and now R. Kelly.

Ultimately, the logic behind that argument posits that if you are a fan of R. Kelly, you have come to the personal conclusion that a song such as “Ignition (Remix)” transcends R. Kelly’s proclivity to urinate on young girls.  The fact that the Ohio State University “Rip His Fucking Head Off” chant even exists in 2013, however, demonstrates that with regard to college football, we as a society have not even fully begun to acknowledge the dangers of concussions—let alone make a decision that the brilliance of football is worth the risk of CTE and the disease’s effects on society as a whole.

I truly respect people like Malcolm Gladwell for actively campaigning for students to boycott college football, but it seems apparent that before we can even begin to have a rational debate on the future of football due to concussions, we first need to educate the masses on the dangers of CTE, as well as to eradicate the cheers promoting decapitation from college football stadiums nationwide.

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Tags: College Football NCAA Football