Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A War on Football?

In last weekend's New York Times Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith in the forthcoming Concussion movie) calls for an end to youth football (the American kind) and other contact sports that involve blows to the head. The article is essentially an invocation of the so-called "precautionary principle" - better safe than sorry when it comes to kids brains and contact sports..

I'll be using the op-ed in my spring course on the Governance of Sport where we will be discussing and ebating this issue. This post will serve as a running resource for this emerging debate. I have not yet seen a coherent response arguing the other side to Omalu's op-ed. But there have been a few interesting responses, an more is sure to come

Danny Kannell, former NFL quaterback and current ESPN commentator, took strong exception to the debate itself:
Last year the NYT suggested that football might be the source of a partisan split. Looking at the data, there is a case to be made, but it does not appear to be a strong one. Yesterday, Forbes also engaged this theme. Both Kannell and the NYT/Forbes seem a bit over-the-top, but perhaps they are just premature. We shall see.

Dr. Julian Bailes, who is also portrayed in the Concussion movie (by Alec Baldwin) argues that the state of concussion science, full of uncertainties, does not outweigh the various benefits of organized youth football. In effect, he takes the other side of the precautionary principle - arguing that the risks to eliminating football outweigh the possible health benefits. In effect, better safe than sorry means keeping football.

He does have a point, over 1 million boys play football in high schools, a number that hasn't changed very much over at least the past decade and longer (data). This suggests (using rough math: 250k per high school class over the past 50 years), that there are 10-15 million American adult males for who football was a part of their cultural experience. That is a big number. In the US, football is king of sports.

In a 2014 article, FiveThirtyEight (owned by ESPN) has also cast doubt on the relationship of concussions and health impacts on football players (professional). FiveThirtyEight also explored concussion rates in youth sports, which (if the data is reliable and meaningful, big ifs here) suggests a pretty low rate across sports, but with football in the lead.

Far more important than any partisan divide in the debate over concussions in sports, at all levels, are the financial interests at play. The NFL has a lot of money and influence. It also has a $15 billion plus contact with ESPN. ESPN pays the salaries of both Danny Kannell and FiveThirtyEight. I don't believe that either Kannell or folks at FiveThirtyEight have their views because of NFL funding, simply that interests align in predictable ways. This is a common challenge in policy debates relate to science and culture, and one that I have written a lot about.

Coming up with balanced analysis of the concussion problem, a shared understanding of what that problem may be, as well as alternative options for the future will depend upon hearing from a diversity of voices, including those that are independent of the NFL, ESPN and the debate so far.

The issue is still emerging. Watch this space.


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