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Columns

Shut Down Harvard Football

A football fan's case for why the sport has no place on campus

By Sam H. Koppelman

Last week, Andre Smith hit his head on the final play of his Illinois high school’s football game. He got up, walked off the field, and made his way to the sideline. Then, he collapsed. The following morning, he died as the result of “blunt force head injuries due to a football accident.” He was 17 years old.

Smith’s death marks the 11th time a high school student has died as the result of a football related injury this year alone.

*****

Harvard spends over $400,000 annually in operating expenses for its football team to recruit high school players, pay coaches and staff, and maintain its facilities. On the surface, these expenditures are paying off: Last week’s 42-7 rout over Princeton was Harvard’s 20th straight win; we’ve won three of the last four Ivy League championships; we’ve beaten Yale eight straight times.

But if you look a little closer, it becomes clear that by maintaining a football team, Harvard is not simply risking the health of its players on a weekly basis, but threatening players’ mental and physical well being for the rest of their lives.

It’s time for the administration to disband Harvard Football.

Sure, not all football injuries lead to death, and of course, more often than not, players leave Harvard and enter the workforce without an easily discernible mental deficiency. But study after study has concluded that playing football—at the high school, college, and professional level—leads to brain damage, in the form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, post-concussion syndrome, depression, and other long-term head-related injuries.

Some argue that the way to address this problem is to increase awareness. But in spite of repeated efforts to encourage football players to be more cautious, college players still only report one in every 27 head injuries. Furthermore, according to a study conducted here at Harvard and Boston College, players still suffer six suspected concussions for every one diagnosed. Besides, even if we were to create a paradigm in which all concussions were reported, we’d come nowhere close to thwarting the detrimental effect college football has on players’ brains.

As Malcolm Gladwell argues in The New Yorker, citing concussion expert Robert Cantu, “It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too.” Anyone who has ever seen or played in a football game knows that little hits are an every play occurrence, as intrinsic to the game of football as cursing is to a Tarantino movie.

*****

As far back as I can remember. I’ve always been obsessed with football.

From the ages of five to 10, I played Madden religiously every Sunday, in an attempt to grow closer to my estranged relatives. My stoner uncle and estranged grandfather—whose roles in my life were practically nonexistent otherwise—would come over and play virtual football with me once a week. Always three minute quarters. Always set to Monday night football. No punts allowed. These games marked the highlight of my week.

From 10 to 13, I half-heartedly convinced myself I could play in real life. I joined a flag football league, began what I thought of as a rigorous regimen of push-ups and sit-ups (100 a day), and learned to run for more than a mile at a time. But some part of me always knew I wasn’t serious. I was short. I was a little tubby. I was slow as shit.

From 14 to 18, fantasy became my preferred method of football consumption and I managed my team as though it were my job. Having quit real life football, I savored the chance to compete on the newest iteration of a football field: ESPN’s Live Fantasy Cast.

I never had a real chance of playing tackle football—my mom was too neurotic and my biceps were too small to let that happen. But I never stopped paying attention to the sport, because football has always given me pure, unadulterated joy. Which is to say: I’m telling this story because even though I can never genuinely relate to football players, to some degree, I do get it. Football is not only fun, it’s valiant, It’s uniting. Something about it is undeniably magical.

But while I would hate to see football go, I now understand that it simply has little place in today’s society, especially at an educational institution like Harvard.

*****

College is supposed to be a time of intellectual exploration, centered on expanding students’ brains and preparing them to become fully grown citizens of the world. Football is not conducive to that mission. Stuck in your dorm room with a concussion, it’s hard—maybe even impossible—to get through your readings, or go over to a friend’s room and have a meaningful conversation. I’d know: I’ve had three serious concussions myself.

But perhaps even worse than the effects concussions have on the lives of Harvard football players is the number of high school students who put themselves at risk for the (really, really slim) chance of playing college football. According to a 2014 study in the American Journal of Sports medicine, almost 70 percent of high school athletes with concussions played despite their symptoms, over 40 percent of whom never told their coaches about the injury. According to another study, over 50 percent of concussions obtained in high-school male sports came from football.

Point being: Over one million high school students across the country risk their health—and, often, conceal their injuries—to play competitive football. If Harvard, and other schools that value education, shut down their football programs, one can only imagine how many more high school students would report their concussions, or stop playing football altogether.

As more information comes out about the dangers of football, high school students from upper-middle class backgrounds will be less inclined to play, while lower-class students may still feel forced to join football teams in spite of the risks. The coercive incentive structure that is starting to develop alongside the “ghettoization” of football is not unlike that of the military, where lower-class citizens often feel forced to put their bodies at risk for the chance of a college education. This incentive structure is tilted to favor the upper class.

Ultimately this debate comes down to a single question: Should Harvard, a school that’s mission is to provide students with a “transformational” education, really be rewarding high school students for playing a sport that risks their physical and mental well-being?

I think not, and I want Harvard, as well as any other schools that would be willing, to shut down their football teams now, so that young Americans like Andre Smith do not die in vain.


Samuel H. Koppelman ’18, a Crimson editorial executive, lives in Leverett House.

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