The growing evidence of the long-term cognitive impairment that can result from playing football should be deeply disturbing to all, but especially to a university committed to improving the critical thinking skills of our students. If we are encouraging a large segment of our students to engage in an activity that may well cause severe cognitive disability, reduced self-control, and lifetime psychological problems, then we are betraying our values and our mission.
The evidence concerning the cognitive perils of football is becoming stronger and more obvious. Bob Costas, the former host of “Football Night in America,” recently stated: “The reality is that this game destroys people’s brains.” The best available experimental evidence raises serious concerns about the cognitive perils; and the extensive neuropsychological research of long-term brain tissue damage provides even stronger evidence.
The evidence that playing football is a leading cause of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is certainly strong enough to impose an obligation to make a serious investigation of the risks involved when we encourage and recruit students to play football for YSU. The question is not whether students should be able to play football or engage in other risky behavior: certainly, they should have the freedom to do so. The question is the legitimacy of YSU sponsoring and encouraging an activity that may cause irreversible cognitive damage.
There are people at YSU who have the expertise to critically examine the relevant research: psychology and biology faculty are the obvious candidates. And as the part of the campus community most directly involved in and committed to enhancing the cognitive abilities of our students, the YSU faculty is also the appropriate place for such an examination. This is a project that the YSU Faculty Senate should undertake, and with great urgency. If there is a strong possibility that the students we are dedicated to helping are instead being severely impaired – suffering long-term and irreversible cognitive and psychological damage – there is no more important issue for us to examine.
As the research university of the Mahoning Valley, we also have an obligation to our community: an obligation to warn youth football leagues, middle schools and high schools, and parents if there is evidence that playing football poses special risks to adolescents, when their developing brains may be especially vulnerable to damage. The YSU Faculty Senate, with the full support of the administration (and ideally in partnership with neighboring universities such as Kent, Akron, and Pitt), should undertake this investigation as soon as possible.
If we are committed to the improvement of our students’ reasoning and critical thinking skills we cannot ignore the question of whether a YSU-sponsored program may be pushing many of our students in the opposite direction toward severe cognitive, emotional, and psychological disability.
Bruce N. Waller, Professor, Philosophy