The Fight for High School Football
NeuroNotes has devoted many blogs to the subject of sports concussions, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and the lives of retired athletes living with the life long effects of multiple concussions. I have been interviewed for a NPR radio show on the future of football a few years ago. The interviewer focused on the demise of boxing and compared it to where football is headed today. The discussion of brain injury and football isn’t going away and has taken on a larger proportion as more people have weighed in on the issues. Through the work of researchers like Bennett Omalu, MD, a former Pittsburgh pathologist who discovered the changes in Mike Webster’s brain to the ongoing research into CTE at the Boston Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and other academic institutions, it has become clear that the pathway to disabling brain changes occurs through multiple concussions and maybe even from aggregated sub-concussive hits. In Clark County, Nevada Russell Davis is campaigning for a seat on the Clark County School Board. Among the points of Mr. Davis’ campaign is ending school football. Mr. Davis also includes academic improvement and other changes in his statements, but what has brought the most vehement criticism to his run for the School Board seat has been his stance on banning football. Clark County is the country’s fifth largest school district and a place where football has become a tradition, if not a way of life.
Mr. Davis loves football and grew up in the sport. As a youth playing sandlot ball he pretended he was Jack Tatum, the Raiders defensive back who was known as “The Assassin”. Jack Tatum was known for his crashing helmet-to-helmet collisions, including the one which left Daryl Stingley paralyzed for life. Russell Davis is not opposed to football and continues to hope that the Oakland Raiders will move to Las Vegas, but he believes that public education dollars should not be used to support football and as a parent Davis would not subject his children to a sport where there are safety and health concerns. Needless to say, Davis is not a popular man in his bid for the School Board seat and has acknowledged that he can count on 3 votes of the needed votes. The question is what separates other parents, coaches and school officials from accepting Davis’ case against football in high school which is based on solid evidence in several research studies. High school athletes are nearly twice as likely to suffer concussions than their college counterparts. Even Clark County School Board members struggle with accepting the facts which Davis puts in front of them. He’s fighting an uphill battle to get people to recognize the risks of high school football. Advocates of the sport talk about football helping athletes channel aggression and learn team skills. Davis has invited Clark County Liberty High School Coach Muraco to his Town Hall meeting, but the invitation has been declined by the coach. A former Liberty High School player, Junior Seau, attained great fame in pro-football and committed suicide. Evidence of CTE was found in Seau’s brain upon autopsy.
From an economic perspective, Davis has a few supporters like John Gerdy who has studied the costs of football on a school budget. Some coaches make more than teachers and the cost of football can eat into a school budget rapidly. Davis has refrained from using the economic argument and instead focuses on safety and highlights his concern for young athletes.
On election night Davis received 1,182 votes or 8% of the total votes cast. While he lost his bid for the School Board seat, he hasn’t lost his energy for the issue and continues to reach out to others to gain interest and support.
The fight over high school football is ongoing, after all it’s the American sport. The reality is that the American sport exposing athletes to high risks of brain injury which may not appear until later in life. We know how boxing has lost it’s fan base and we readily acknowledge the risk of that sport, but somehow football remains immune from players, parents, coaches, fans and school officials accepting the risks of football.