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NCAA Plays Risky Head Game in Notre Dame-Alabama Showdown

By the Editors
January 06, 2013 6:30 PM EST
Photographs by Getty Images, Illustration by Bloomberg View
Photographs by Getty Images, Illustration by Bloomberg View

By all means, enjoy the upcoming showdown between the University of Alabama and the undefeated University of Notre Dame for the college football national championship. In many ways the sport has never been more fun to watch.

As you do, however, say a prayer for the athletes on the field who may be risking brain injuries -- many of which could be prevented.

For years, a steady drip of studies has shown that concussions are alarmingly common in football, and that players who experience them are much more likely to suffer depression, memory loss, headaches and other maladies.

Recently, it has become clear that concussions are only part of the story. A government study released in September found that retired football players were four times as likely to have died of Alzheimer’s or Lou Gehrig’s disease as the general population. Research published last month in the journal Brain found that a staggeringly high percentage of subjects with a history of repeated mild head injuries showed signs of a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Almost all the subjects in that study were athletes, and most were football players. Significantly, offensive linemen and running backs, positions in which contact is made on almost every play, were the most likely to have the disease. This suggested -- although did not prove -- that unremarkable but repetitive blows to the head may in the long run be as injurious to an athlete as the singular bone-jarring hits that get more attention.

Affecting Academics

Risks unique to college athletes, the vast majority of whom won’t go on to the pros, are also becoming clearer. A study published in the journal Neurology in May tracked Division I athletes in both contact and noncontact sports over the course of a season. Some were fitted with helmets that collected data about head impacts, and all were given cognitive tests before and after the season. A higher percentage of the players in contact sports scored worse than predicted on postseason tests. Those who had been exposed to more hits to the head were even more likely to underperform.

Let’s repeat that: By playing a sport, some ostensible “student-athletes” were actually impeding their ability to learn. A clearer distillation of the hypocrisies at the heart of big-time college athletics could hardly be imagined.

So what can be done? For starters, the National Collegiate Athletic Association could take some tips from the pros.

The National Football League, under intense pressure from the players’ union, in 2011 limited the number of full-contact practices teams can undergo to an average of one a week over the season. That could be a game-changer. Several experts have estimated that as many as 70 percent of head injuries occur during practice. One study found that college football teams see an average of 300 hits of concussion-causing force during practice in a single season. Experts writing in the journal Clinics in Sports Medicine recently concluded that “one way to quickly and drastically reduce a sport’s concussion risk would be to limit unnecessary contact in practice.”

Furthermore, players sustain far more total hits over their careers in practice than in once-a-week games. If repeated mild blows to the head can indeed cause CTE, limiting practice hits could be the best way to prevent it short of fundamentally changing the sport. Along with the NFL, the Pop Warner youth football organization and the NCAA’s Ivy League conference have sharply reduced the contact allowed in practices. The NCAA itself -- which still allows five full-contact practices a week -- needs to do the same.

Hit Counts

The NCAA should also consider how to better use advanced technology. Although helmets have proved to be distressingly ineffective in preventing concussions, expanded use of devices that track hits to the head could help. Researchers at the Sports Legacy Institute advocate a “hit count” system, in which the number of such blows a player can take in a season is subject to a cap -- not unlike a pitch count in baseball. This technology is expensive, and will be resisted by many coaches and players (and surely fans), but schools such as Virginia Tech are already experimenting with it.

Finally, a 2004 study found that almost 53 percent of concussions go unreported, either because the players don’t think their injuries are serious or because they want to stay in the game. Closer monitoring by coaches and medical staff, and a better awareness of the risks and symptoms of brain injury among players, should start to change that.

Will the quality of play decline if college athletes can’t practice as hard, or take as many hits in a season? Undoubtedly; anyone who claims otherwise has never played or coached football. Let’s be clear: Football is an inherently violent and injurious game, and no amount of rule changes or technology or education will alter that.

But the NCAA -- whose unpaid student-athletes often rely on scholarships to afford their educations -- should remember that brain injuries are uniquely debilitating. Evidence suggests they’re getting more common as athletes grow bigger, faster and stronger. And there are clear steps schools can take to limit them. To do anything less is to jeopardize the futures of already vulnerable young athletes. Is that worth seeing a slightly better game each weekend?

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.

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