Voices in Education

Is the Sponsorship of Tackle Football Programs by Schools Ethically Responsible?
I began playing football when I was ten years old. It was 1965 and that’s what the boys I knew did after school in the fall. Our apartment building stood in a clearing in the woods on the marshy fringe of New Orleans, so we played in the parking lot of our building and later in the grassy median of the divided road. For a few years I played barefoot for better traction, and the soles of my feet were so deeply calloused that cuts from the broken glass in our improvised field rarely drew blood. I loved the game and didn’t stop playing until a pair of shoulder dislocations landed my throwing arm in a sling for three months during my junior year of high school.

We all watched tackle football, from the Pop Warner five-to-seven-year-old division games to professional games and everything in between, but we played touch football. There were hazards in running around barefoot and making thrilling sideline interceptions that might land you in the street with a dislocated shoulder, but there was not a great deal of risk to our brains. When my friend Mike decided to try out for his school’s junior varsity team, he was eager to show me how effective his gear was. He laced his shoulder pads onto me and insisted I wouldn’t feel anything, as he set me in a three-point stance and gave me a mighty shove from behind into a doorframe. He was right. I didn’t feel anything. And neither of us—nor anyone else at the time—grasped that helmets and pads, which allow players to hit and tackle one another without fracturing skulls and bones, made the game far more likely to cause a debilitating brain injury. Years later, as a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, I still didn’t grasp this. While watching the legendary center “Iron” Mike Webster, I had no idea that on every offensive play he—and many others —endured blows to the brain that caused a catastrophic degenerative disorder.

Knowledge of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has changed the way many of us experience a game we have loved. It has led a significant proportion of parents to withdraw their children from tackle football programs. Yet, the continuing sponsorship of tackle football programs by schools raises questions of educational ethics that have barely been addressed (Hannel, Gartman, and Karpel, 2014; Toporek, 2012). My coauthor, Jason Blokhuis, and I investigate these questions in our article in the summer issue of the Harvard Educational Review. We approach this not with any pleasure in impugning an institution cherished by many, but in the interest of clarifying the responsibilities of educational authorities to the students in their care.

High school football players sustain up to 1,800 blows to the head each season and about 25 percent of them suffer cognitive impairment that diminishes their ability to engage in the intellectual tasks learned in school and required in skilled employment and personal decision making (Schenke, 2014; Talvage, et al., 2014). Many also suffer from emotional problems even if they haven’t suffered concussions. Better helmets and tackling with the head up won’t reduce brain injury, because it is associated with the jarring of the brain that occurs when players collide with each other or the ground (Broglio, et al., 2011; Schwarz, 2016). Another important finding is that children who begin playing tackle football earlier are more likely to suffer brain injury and neurodegenerative disease (Stamm, et al., 2015).

We argue that schools should not sponsor activities that are known to cognitively impair a significant percentage of students who participate in those activities. They should not sponsor, facilitate, or encourage activities that directly undermine their formative educational aims. Further, they should not devote their resources to sponsoring or facilitating activities that do not substantially advance their educational aims. On these grounds, and despite the benefits that tackle football programs may have for some students and the wider community, we conclude that continued sponsorship of tackle football programs is inconsistent with the fundamental responsibilities of educational authorities.

We explain why parental and student consent to participate in these programs does not release school authorities from these responsibilities. In doing so, we address the situation of students who seek careers in professional football because other opportunities are closed to them. We conclude that the responsibility of educational authorities to such students is to open opportunities that do not require them to accept a 25 percent chance of suffering brain injury.

Broglio, S.P., Eckner, J.T., Martini, D., Sosnoff, J.J., Kutcher, J.S., & Randolph, C. (2011). Cumulative head impact burden in high school football. Journal of Neurotrama, 10, 2069–2078. doi: 10.1089/neu.2011.1825

Hannel, I., Gartman, A., and Karpel, J. (2014). Chronic traumatic encephalopathy: The developing case against high school football. Entertainment, Arts and Sport Law Journal, 25(1), 44-50.

Schenke, J. (2014, May 29). Purdue expert at White House sports summit: Subconcussive blows damage kids’ brains. Purdue University. Retrieved from https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2014/Q2/purdue-expert-at-white-house-sports-summit-subconcussive-blows-damage-kids-brains.html.

Schwarz, A. (2016, July 28). NFL-backed youth program says it reduced concussions. The data disagrees. New York Times, p. A1.

Stamm, J. M., Bourlas, A.P., Baugh, C.M., Fritts, N.G., Daneshvar, D., Martin, B.M.,… Stern, R.A. (2015). Age of first exposure to football and later-life cognitive impairment in former NFL players. Neurology, 84(11), 1114–1120.

Talavage, T., Nauman, E.A., Breedove, E.L., Yoruk, U., Dye, A.E., Morigaki, K.E.,… Leverenz, L.J. (2014). Functionally-detected cognitive impairment in high school football players without clinically-diagnosed concussion. Journal of Neurotrauma, 31, 327–338. doi: 10.1089/neu.2010.1512

Toporek, B. (2012, December 6). High school football can lead to long-term brain damage, study says. Education Week. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/schooled_in_sports/2012/12/long-term_brain_damage_found_in_six_former_hs_football_players.html?qs=High+School+Football+Can+Lead+to+Long-Term+Brain+Damage,+Study+Says.

About the Author: Randall Curren is professor and chair of philosophy and professor of education (secondary) at the University of Rochester. His latest works include Living Well Now and in the Future: Why Sustainability Matters (MIT Press, 2017), Why Character Education? (Wiley-Blackwell, 2017), and Patriotic Education in a Global Age (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

J. C. Blokhuis is associate professor in Social Development Studies at Renison University College, University of Waterloo and a former Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. He is coauthor, most recently, of Education Law, 5th ed. (Routledge, 2014) and The Challenge of Children’s Rights for Canada, 2nd ed. (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2018).