Letter to the Editor: The long-term effects of football

Even with one of the largest per-student endowments of any university in the country, the question remains: how can Grinnell College save money and plan for a long term sustainable budget?

Recent college developments indicate the Humanities are under increasing scrutiny, and at least part of the reason is because the college must maintain a tight budget for the future. We suggest a conversation about the future of Grinnell should begin with the issues on the periphery of the school’s education.

The story of David Duerson has shocked us into writing a letter. Duerson, an NFL lineman, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, and implied in text messages to his family that his brain should be studied by science. As the New York Times reports, “ After years of denying or discrediting evidence of football’s impact on the brain—from C.T.E. in deceased players to an increasing number of retirees found to have dementia or other memory-related disease—the N.F.L. has spent the last year addressing the issue, mostly through changes in concussion management and playing rules.” Dozens of players are now submitting their brains to science. The evidence of the harmful long-term effects is mounting.

In 2009, Purdue University conducted a Neuroscience study with a high school football team. The researchers concluded that even the sort of minor head-to-head contact that occurs on every play has traumatic effects on players’ brains. The two players focused in the study weighed roughly the same as many Grinnell players at 260 and 190 pounds, respectively. Two Purdue engineering professors and their staff, Sports Illustrated reported in 2010, “fitted 23 helmets with accelerometers and gave both the players IMPACT test—a computerized neurocognitive exam that tests memory and concentration—and tests of working memory while their brains were monitored with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).”

The engineers combined accelerometer figures with IMPACT scores to get a sense of how players were affected by football. Researchers considered anytime an accelerometer exceeded 80 Gs was enough force to cause a concussion. Multiple hits in the first contact practice they attended exceed 100 G’s. One offensive lineman suffered an impact of 289 Gs (289 times the force of gravity) while holding an extra-point, an event that occurs multiple times in most games. The scores of one lineman before and after the preseason were examined, and he scored 20% lower on the visual memory section of the IMPACT test, which requires rapid identification of recurring patterns. Other players also fared particularly poorly on the test. And the scariest find of the entire study? Four players were categorized as “functionally impaired” with apparent symptoms of which none the four were cognizant.
Schools have responded to this and other studies. The New York Times reported: “‘Because of the seriousness of the potential consequences, the presidents determined the league needed to take proactive steps in protecting the welfare of our student-athletes,’” said Robin Harris, the executive director of the Ivy League.

According to new rules, teams will be able to hold only two full-contact practices per week during the season, compared with a maximum of five under N.C.A.A. guidelines. On the other days of the week, practices cannot include contact or live tackles, and no player may be ‘taken to the ground.’” Grinnell has adopted similar measures, but this avoids the inconvenient fact that even during these two practices and particularly during games, significant, concussive-inducing hits occur.

The other disturbing consequence of playing football is the constant pressure to gain weight and eat an unhealthily large number of calories. An American Medical Journal article published in January 2007 classified an astonishing 45% of the high school linemen it studied as overweight, and 9% with adult severe obesity. The article concludes, “Severe obesity in adolescence can have an important impact on quality of life and accompanies several comorbid conditions.” On a nationally read blog, one Grinnell football players details his strategy for gaining weight rapidly in order to play college football. He writes that he gained 100 pounds between his sophomore year in high school and his first year in college. One of the central thrusts of Grinnell athletics is to encourage wellness. How does encouraging rapid weight gains fit into this purported institutional philosophy?
Another less considered argument was advanced by Swarthmore College when they ended their football program in 2000. College spokesman Tom Krattenmaker said at the time, “it’s basic math. If you eliminate football, you suddenly have a lot more spaces for everything else.” As a small liberal arts college, Grinnell’s recruited football players represents a chunk of each incoming class. The College Sports Project has cogently summarized the data at 84 selective Division III schools. They concluded that male recruited athletes at the 24 most selective of these schools in certain target sports significantly underperformed academically compared to their peers. As an institution we must always ask ourselves if we have best utilized our coveted admission spots. At a minimum, Grinnell would do itself a great favor by participating in such useful data collection to show the impact of this recruitment. Clarity and transparency are reasonable expectations at such a tightly-knit institution as our own.

We write this article on behalf of a number of concerned students who respect the vast majority of the football team and believe they belong here as well, as students. We ask that these recommendations be considered by adding it to the list of topics for the Strategic Planning Committee. Maybe the proposed solution appears to be brash, but it must be. No half measure could protect these students’ minds. We can make Grinnell a leader and save money. President Kington, you know the effects of binge drinking on the brain and passionately object to the practice for that reason, so take a step to address the practice of binge head-bashing due to its effects on students’ minds. We suggest that Grinnell College, in concurrence with peer institutions like Colorado and Swarthmore College, should suspend its football program indefinitely until these critical issues can be addressed.

Marcus Eagan ’12 and Thomas Neil ’14


Editor’s note: The S&B received a complaint that comments supporting football players or the football program are being edited out because of their content. This is not true. All comments are approved except those deemed inflammatory without cause or argument, off-point personal attacks, and comments published under someone else’s name.