In Defense of Football

Last week at a roundtable discussion, Bob Costas opened another front by making the provocative prediction that parents will not allow their sons to play football because it "destroys people's brains" and that "if I had an athletically gifted twelve-year-old son, I would certainly not allow him to play football."

Is football truly destroying the brains of boys across America?  The gauntlet has been thrown.

Many articles reporting Mr. Costas's comments cite the high-profile study conducted by Boston University published in July 2017 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).  See examples here, here, here, here, and here.  This is Exhibit A in the mainstream media's spin machine.  The B.U. JAMA study reports that 177 of 202 brains of former players at all levels exhibited some form of trauma known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).  This article will examine this study, unpack Costas's and the other media distortions, and make a case in defense of football.

Full disclosure: your author played four years of Division 1-A football at Miami (OH) and suffered a major concussion while playing on kickoff against Michigan State in 1989.  Subsequently, he went on to have a successful career in industrial sales and marketing taking him across the world and back again.  The lessons learned on the gridiron were crucial to him both as a businessman and as a father.

The first problem with the B.U. JAMA study is that the sample is skewed.  The fact that the donors expressed interest in the program indicates self-selection bias in favor of those people who may have already exhibited symptoms related to CTE.  This is not a proper sampling methodology according the scientific method and certainly cannot be used as the basis for predictive claims.

In the "Conclusions and Relevance" section of the abstract, the researchers write: "In a convenience sample of deceased football players who donated their brains for research, a high proportion had neuropathological evidence of CTE, suggesting that CTE may be related to prior participation in football."  "Suggests" and "may" are legalistic, CYA weasel words that protect the researchers from accusations of scientific malpractice while implying the desired result that advances the left's narrative: "football destroys brains."

A different Boston University study from some of the same researchers published in Sept. 2017 in the journal Nature was cited by Time magazine with the explosive headline, "New study links playing youth football to later brain injury."  This B.U. study from Nature explicitly admits to self-selection bias while also burying in second-to-last paragraph that "[w]e found no association between AFE (Age of Exposure) to football and cognition" in the only objective cognition tests they performed.  All other results were subjectively self-reported by the participants.  Do note that 68 of the 214 participants were former NFL players and did not exhibit significant cognitive impairment on these objective tests.

Second, the BU JAMA study's abstract and Costas's and the media's reporting distort and conflate the results reported on the former NFL players (101 out of 110 NFL players' brains exhibited severe CTE) as pertaining to all players to justify the claim that "parents won't let their kids play because their brains are getting destroyed."  There were, however, significant CTE differences between the brains of former NFL versus college versus high school players in this study.  Neither Costas nor any of the other media outlets reported these facts.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  And yet the proof is just the opposite.

Per the B.U. JAMA reported results, of the self-selected 14 people studied who never played higher than high school, only three exhibited mild CTE.  This is the critical finding.  The results from the most relevant group of this (biased) study indicate that there is only a 21% that American boys who will never play college or pro football will develop any CTE injury whatsoever, and that this injury has a 100% chance of being mild.  These results align with the results of a different study also published in July 2017 by Dr. Dylan Small in JAMA Neurology.  It found that a group of men who played high school football in 1957 (and no higher) suffered no loss of cognition later in life.  Yes, indeed: the truth has only one side, and it does not comport with boys destroying their brains playing football.

This is significant because USA Football reports that 3.42 million children aged 6-18 played tackle football in 2015.  The NCAA reports that 73,660 men played college football in 2016, and 251 were drafted in the NFL.  Therefore, around 97.8% of all football players will never play at the college or NFL level.  

This puts the lie to Costas's commentary as blatant, anti-football fear-mongering.  The left's faux concern about children's concussions is also belied by studies that indicate that high school female athletes suffer higher rates of concussion than high school male athletes.  Where is the outrage?

Third, of the self-selected 53 in the B.U. JAMA study who never played higher than college football, 48 indicated signs of CTE, but 21 of those 48 exhibited mild pathology.  So about 50% of the people in this sample did not develop severe symptoms of CTE.  This implies that your odds are 50-50 of developing CTE with "severe pathology" if you play college football.

What is not described is the definition of "severe pathology."  Are there no differences in the level of "severity" of pathology between NFL players and college players?  No explanation is attempted in the abstract or identified as a topic requiring greater research.  I have former teammates who played in the NFL, and they tell me the intensity of hitting in the NFL compared to college is comparable to the ratio of college to high school.  In short, the hitting is much more intense.

How to overcome adversity by testing myself to my limits playing college football and graduating cum laude was a critical life lesson.  It is a tough sport and is not for everybody (only 2.1% of all players).  If you surveyed thousands of middle-aged ex-college football players and asked if they would do it all over again, I bet they would respond with an overwhelming "yes!"  College football may need more research on its effects, but the massive disparity in intensity of play between college and high school suggests that this research will have little or no bearing on youth football.

Finally, NFL players know what they're signing up for.  It's a brutally tough game, and they know it.  They are also rewarded with potentially millions of dollars of income.  Some of them come from extremely poor backgrounds.  Hall-of-Famer Shannon Sharpe has often spoken about growing up dirt-poor in rural Georgia.  Should he have been denied the opportunity to earn tens of millions of dollars?  On average, only 251 people per year are invited to play in the NFL.  They have the free choice to weigh those costs and benefits.  The consequences of their choices also have absolutely nothing to do with youth football.

In a book being published this month called The Secrets of Resilience, Dr. Meg Jay documents how the will to fight and overcome adversity was found to be healthy and has been the key to success and emotional and psychological happiness and stability for thousands of people.  Playing football is a great way for boys to learn to fight adversity and win.  It is also healthy.

Youth football can be done wrong.  I coached my own son for years.  The first league was poorly designed.  We switched to Pop Warner and had great experiences.  Today, he is a freshman at a high-caliber university where he isn't playing football and has straight As.  Football helped teach him how to prepare to win.

As the largest high school sport by participation, high school and youth football is an important, effective, traditional way to teach young men self-discipline, teamwork, mental toughness, and the controlled use of aggression to fight and win.  This is healthy for young men and for the American Republic.

If you stand for traditional, healthy American values, you should stand for traditional football (as opposed to Roger Goodell's kneeling version), because it is good for American boys and American culture.

Last week at a roundtable discussion, Bob Costas opened another front by making the provocative prediction that parents will not allow their sons to play football because it "destroys people's brains" and that "if I had an athletically gifted twelve-year-old son, I would certainly not allow him to play football."

Is football truly destroying the brains of boys across America?  The gauntlet has been thrown.

Many articles reporting Mr. Costas's comments cite the high-profile study conducted by Boston University published in July 2017 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).  See examples here, here, here, here, and here.  This is Exhibit A in the mainstream media's spin machine.  The B.U. JAMA study reports that 177 of 202 brains of former players at all levels exhibited some form of trauma known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).  This article will examine this study, unpack Costas's and the other media distortions, and make a case in defense of football.

Full disclosure: your author played four years of Division 1-A football at Miami (OH) and suffered a major concussion while playing on kickoff against Michigan State in 1989.  Subsequently, he went on to have a successful career in industrial sales and marketing taking him across the world and back again.  The lessons learned on the gridiron were crucial to him both as a businessman and as a father.

The first problem with the B.U. JAMA study is that the sample is skewed.  The fact that the donors expressed interest in the program indicates self-selection bias in favor of those people who may have already exhibited symptoms related to CTE.  This is not a proper sampling methodology according the scientific method and certainly cannot be used as the basis for predictive claims.

In the "Conclusions and Relevance" section of the abstract, the researchers write: "In a convenience sample of deceased football players who donated their brains for research, a high proportion had neuropathological evidence of CTE, suggesting that CTE may be related to prior participation in football."  "Suggests" and "may" are legalistic, CYA weasel words that protect the researchers from accusations of scientific malpractice while implying the desired result that advances the left's narrative: "football destroys brains."

A different Boston University study from some of the same researchers published in Sept. 2017 in the journal Nature was cited by Time magazine with the explosive headline, "New study links playing youth football to later brain injury."  This B.U. study from Nature explicitly admits to self-selection bias while also burying in second-to-last paragraph that "[w]e found no association between AFE (Age of Exposure) to football and cognition" in the only objective cognition tests they performed.  All other results were subjectively self-reported by the participants.  Do note that 68 of the 214 participants were former NFL players and did not exhibit significant cognitive impairment on these objective tests.

Second, the BU JAMA study's abstract and Costas's and the media's reporting distort and conflate the results reported on the former NFL players (101 out of 110 NFL players' brains exhibited severe CTE) as pertaining to all players to justify the claim that "parents won't let their kids play because their brains are getting destroyed."  There were, however, significant CTE differences between the brains of former NFL versus college versus high school players in this study.  Neither Costas nor any of the other media outlets reported these facts.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  And yet the proof is just the opposite.

Per the B.U. JAMA reported results, of the self-selected 14 people studied who never played higher than high school, only three exhibited mild CTE.  This is the critical finding.  The results from the most relevant group of this (biased) study indicate that there is only a 21% that American boys who will never play college or pro football will develop any CTE injury whatsoever, and that this injury has a 100% chance of being mild.  These results align with the results of a different study also published in July 2017 by Dr. Dylan Small in JAMA Neurology.  It found that a group of men who played high school football in 1957 (and no higher) suffered no loss of cognition later in life.  Yes, indeed: the truth has only one side, and it does not comport with boys destroying their brains playing football.

This is significant because USA Football reports that 3.42 million children aged 6-18 played tackle football in 2015.  The NCAA reports that 73,660 men played college football in 2016, and 251 were drafted in the NFL.  Therefore, around 97.8% of all football players will never play at the college or NFL level.  

This puts the lie to Costas's commentary as blatant, anti-football fear-mongering.  The left's faux concern about children's concussions is also belied by studies that indicate that high school female athletes suffer higher rates of concussion than high school male athletes.  Where is the outrage?

Third, of the self-selected 53 in the B.U. JAMA study who never played higher than college football, 48 indicated signs of CTE, but 21 of those 48 exhibited mild pathology.  So about 50% of the people in this sample did not develop severe symptoms of CTE.  This implies that your odds are 50-50 of developing CTE with "severe pathology" if you play college football.

What is not described is the definition of "severe pathology."  Are there no differences in the level of "severity" of pathology between NFL players and college players?  No explanation is attempted in the abstract or identified as a topic requiring greater research.  I have former teammates who played in the NFL, and they tell me the intensity of hitting in the NFL compared to college is comparable to the ratio of college to high school.  In short, the hitting is much more intense.

How to overcome adversity by testing myself to my limits playing college football and graduating cum laude was a critical life lesson.  It is a tough sport and is not for everybody (only 2.1% of all players).  If you surveyed thousands of middle-aged ex-college football players and asked if they would do it all over again, I bet they would respond with an overwhelming "yes!"  College football may need more research on its effects, but the massive disparity in intensity of play between college and high school suggests that this research will have little or no bearing on youth football.

Finally, NFL players know what they're signing up for.  It's a brutally tough game, and they know it.  They are also rewarded with potentially millions of dollars of income.  Some of them come from extremely poor backgrounds.  Hall-of-Famer Shannon Sharpe has often spoken about growing up dirt-poor in rural Georgia.  Should he have been denied the opportunity to earn tens of millions of dollars?  On average, only 251 people per year are invited to play in the NFL.  They have the free choice to weigh those costs and benefits.  The consequences of their choices also have absolutely nothing to do with youth football.

In a book being published this month called The Secrets of Resilience, Dr. Meg Jay documents how the will to fight and overcome adversity was found to be healthy and has been the key to success and emotional and psychological happiness and stability for thousands of people.  Playing football is a great way for boys to learn to fight adversity and win.  It is also healthy.

Youth football can be done wrong.  I coached my own son for years.  The first league was poorly designed.  We switched to Pop Warner and had great experiences.  Today, he is a freshman at a high-caliber university where he isn't playing football and has straight As.  Football helped teach him how to prepare to win.

As the largest high school sport by participation, high school and youth football is an important, effective, traditional way to teach young men self-discipline, teamwork, mental toughness, and the controlled use of aggression to fight and win.  This is healthy for young men and for the American Republic.

If you stand for traditional, healthy American values, you should stand for traditional football (as opposed to Roger Goodell's kneeling version), because it is good for American boys and American culture.

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