Dear Members of the Board of Trustees,
I write to ask that we abolish the university’s successful football program.
With full awareness that I will be vilified for putting forth this argument — as will no doubt anyone who agrees with me — I write from the perspective of a professor who loves this institution and, more, loves and cares about our students.
A few weeks ago, when I watched professional football players engage in silent, powerful and respectful protest against the injustice they see and often feel, I was struck by their integrity, their sense of honor.
Then, in the same news pages, I read reports of the autopsy of former professional football player and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez. A lawyer for the family of the 27-year-old, who hanged himself in a prison cell, said his brain showed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, “the most severe case they had ever seen in someone of Aaron’s age.” The family is suing the National Football League.
This did not surprise me. About five years ago, an emergency room physician told me he believed that in 10 years, football would be outlawed. “All of the science on brain injury is coming from that sport,” he said. Hernandez’s death and diagnosis followed reports of the tragic deaths of Terry Long, Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, Junior Seau and other former NFL players who died by suicide after struggling with life after football. Abundant medical studies make it clear that this sport is dangerous.
I’m sure each of you has seen the same information I have, and you know that many parents are refusing to let their young sons play the game. Sure, the president of the United States might believe that football has gotten “soft”; there are no doubt some who wish we could bring back gladiatorial games and dogfighting. Many people I love stay glued to their TVs on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights and wear jerseys that have never gotten dirt on them. I understand the pleasures of being a fan.
Colleges and universities spend millions of dollars on their football programs, and coaches’ salaries are often bigger than presidents’. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, an organization founded to protect college athletes, makes billions of dollars from football and has claimed in court that it has no “legal duty to protect student athletes.” The good, hardworking young men who come to college on scholarships risk their brains in ways that are scientifically proven to be harmful.
At some point, a university with a thriving program is going to stand up, finally, and say, No more. This is wrong. I want it to be mine. I’m asking you to take a moral stance.
I’m not anti-sports. Organized athletics are a great way for young people to develop discipline and learn to work with others toward a shared goal. Some of you are former collegiate athletes and know well how training, routine and struggle on the fields, tracks and mats spill over into healthy habits of body and mind and help lead to success in other areas.
I know it’s possible to get concussions from soccer, hockey and other sports, but football is in a league of its own when it comes to head injuries. Pro football players are eight times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia than the general population is, and one in three NFL players suffer from brain trauma.
We’re only just beginning to understand the extent of the damage. In 2017, an examination of the brains of 111 deceased NFL players found CTE in all but one. Measurable effects of the harm done to living current and former players won’t be known until they die; at this point, CTE can only be confirmed from an autopsy. We’re complicit in a system that encourages young boys to believe they can get to college on a scholarship and then rake in millions playing pro. In fact, many end up dropping out without a degree, but with plenty of debt and who knows how much injury to their brains.
Though I don’t wear an American flag on my lapel, I am unabashed in my love for America and its stated values. I cherish the way we look gimlet-eyed at our history and reflect on past mistakes. We have amended and emended our laws and practices to protect the weak and guard the freedoms on which this country was founded. As a people, we have long supported public education, knowing it’s the only way to keep democracy alive.
Colleges and universities are in the business of creating informed citizens. We teach students to read and write, to think and analyze, to distinguish alternative facts from fake news. I would like to see the resources spent on football used to support our students with activities and entertainments that will create a better and more just world.
I suspect future generations will look back on football with horror and disbelief. I’m asking you to do something politically unpopular because I care about our society and our students. I want them to leave here with strong hearts, open minds and unbruised brains.
Rachel Toor teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Eastern Washington University. Her newest book is Write Your Way In: Advice on Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay.