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At Colorado, a Breach in Football’s Wall (nytimes.com)
76 points by mlthoughts2018 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 132 comments



I knew it was bad, but I had not realized that the CTE numbers were so high from the article "...read the work of the Boston University C.T.E. center, which found evidence of degenerative brain disease in 99 percent of brains obtained from deceased N.F.L. players and 91 percent of college football players and 21 percent of those who played high school football."

From BU's site, here was the methodology: "For the study, the researchers began with the donated brains of 202 football players. Pathologists, knowing nothing of a patient’s history or symptoms, examined each brain for evidence of CTE. At the same time, clinicians—blinded to each brain’s pathology—used medical records and interviews with family members to collect detailed information about each patient’s medical history and symptoms. The group met for regular consensus meetings, where the pathologists and the clinicians presented their findings. They limited the study to football players, providing a somewhat homogeneous sample."

Stated another way (based on the study) 9 out of 10 college football players are going to leave with CTE.


I don't want to diminish the seriousness of CTE, but there is a huge selection bias there since the brains had to be donated to the study in the first place. Fully healthy people are probably much less likely to make the decision to donate their brain on death. Most of the people who are making the choice to donate are probably doing so because they experienced CTE symptoms during their life.


The University of Nebraska's Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior (which is housed inside the stadium) is trying to overcome the selection bias of these studies by doing a baseline scan of all football players: https://www.starherald.com/sports/big_red_wrap/football/at-n...


Exactly. The brains were actually donated due to suspicion of CTE and one of them was a punter who died in a motor cross accident.

The game is only getting safer right now. IMO there’s no reason to play tackle football before the middle school level but after that I have zero issue. I played offensive and defensive line in high school and have been following these studies closely; there’s a ton of scare mongering and data slanting happening to create the headlines and very little coverage being given to rule changes to make the game safer.


The paper disagrees with your restatement:

> caution must be used in interpreting the high frequency of CTE in this sample,

> and estimates of prevalence cannot be concluded or implied from this sample

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2645104

Last paragraph before the Conclusion header.


Thanks for pointing this out, I wasn't trying to mislead so much as understand this better and didn't realize the provenance of the brains in this study.


As I explained elsewhere, that's not a valid conclusion to draw, since the families of all of the players donated their players brain because the family suspected their player had CTE. But it's still a horrifying stat, and the conclusion one should draw is that playing American football means you are at significant risk for developing CTE. Enough that it has changed how I view the sport.


It's clear that there is significant brain damage risk to participating in activities that knock your brain around. Why anyone would let their children or themselves box, MMA, hit soccer balls with their head, or play American football is beyond me.


Have there been any studies that attempt to rank the risks? I imagine boxing would be at the top. Followed by football.

MMA is a tricky one. A fight can get bloody, but because of the light weight gloves (and kicks), any single good blow typically ends the fight. Fights can also end by submission without having to knock someone out. A professional UFC fighter, and a professional NFL player would be an interesting comparison.

What about the board sports (wake/snow/skate)?


> What about the board sports (wake/snow/skate)?

I doubt they're anywhere near the others. Boxers and football players get hit every match as a matter of course. The whole point is to hit people.

Board sports, on the other hand, the entire point is not to fall down or run into things. A person can snowboard an entire lifetime and never take as many hits to the head as boxer gets in a single match.


MMA is unsurprisingly less dangerous than boxing concerning non-superficial injury (no gloves=less likelihood of hard hits to the head, since that will also often result in broken knuckles), “You’re more likely to get injured if you’re participating in mixed martial arts, but the injury severity is less overall than boxing. Most of the blood you see in mixed martial arts is from bloody noses or facial cuts; it doesn’t tend to be as severe but looks a lot worse than it actually is.” [1]

The science on football vs. MMA is murky, and I don't know if a definitive ranking can be established, but aparently it's more common to play through a mild concussive event in football, according to a current MMA fighter & former footbal player when asked which sport was more harmful: "It's football," Saint Preux said. "Obviously anytime you get knocked out, you get a concussion. You get hurt, your bell gets rung, that's a concussion. What usually happens is you play through it. Week 1, you get a minor concussion, you keep going. Week 5 comes around, it's worse." [2]

I would expect that overall the board sports are safer, but that when injuries do occur they tend to be more serious. For instance, I normally don't suffer any injury at all when skiing, and the worst injury I have ever received from skiing is a sprained ankle. However, I don't consider skiing a 'safe' activity, since the consequences of a mistake could easily be as serious as having an accident on my motorcycle, such as hitting a tree or other solid obstacle. But I don't routinely expect to be injured when I ski, while a fighter or football player can reasonably expect at least some injuries every time they play (and oftentimes even practice). I would actually expect that overall sports like non-US football and basketball would carry higher risk of injury than skiing/snowboarding. Skateboarding is interesting, I was friends w/ a group of fairly serious skaters, and aside from superficial injury (road rash, etc) it seemed paradoxically fairly safe (anecdotally, it seemed more common for someone to sprain an ankle playing pickup basketball) and hitting your head was an extremely rare event.

I can't find a link to the full study (this page is focused on the relative safety of shooting sports), but according to [3], the ranking on injuries/100 participants is:

Football > Ice Hockey > Soccer > Basketball > Baseball > Running/Jogging > Skateboarding > Gymnastics

Ice skating is fairly low (0.7/100), and skiing isn't listed, but I would expect it to be higher. Fighting also isn't listed, but I would think it would fall between hockey and soccer.

[1] https://www.fightersonlymag.com/features/boxing-vs-mma-safer...

[2] https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2830774-football-vs-mma-...

[3] http://www.familiesafield.org/pdf/Injury_page.pdf


while it's possible to hit your head hard while skiing, it may be possible to go an entire lifetime without that happening (as is the case for myself and most people I know who ski)..


Where I live (Oregon) there's a sizable Lacrosse population, and the high school where my son will eventually go has a big Lacrosse team. Football is big but Lacrosse is almost as big, and I wonder if Lacrosse (or something like it) will end up surpassing football. But are the head injuries as serious? It seems like no.

Another interesting sport to compare would be hockey. While hockey players don't tackle each other like football players do, they do check each other into the boards and those can be some big hits. Is CTE prevalent in professional hockey players as well?


The big question is field or box lacrosse? There is far less head on head contact in lacrosse, but box lacrosse has the same problem with hits from behind into the boards as hockey.

Somewhat surprising, soccer also has huge concussion issues, so probably CTE as well. They'll try and argue no proven linkage, but to me that doesn't make sense.

My 10 yr old plays football and lacrosse, but next year we will probably switch him to flag football and basketball exclusively. It's just not worth the risks.


Having played a lot of lacrosse (high school & college, field & box), since it's in Oregon, it's probably field lacrosse. Box lacrosse just isn't that prevalent in the United States, especially in states that aren't big hockey states.


It is indeed field lacrosse.


There are worse things in life than brain damage risk, and I'm thankful that others aren't allowed to choose for me how I approach those risks.


Unfortunately middle school and high school kids pressured into playing, or choosing to play when it is not conceptually possible for them to grant consent to bear longterm injury risks they can’t fully understand, are unprotected from these risks in highly questionable ways.


What can be worse than damaging your brain? It’s literally what makes you, you.


Health problems due to a childhood of inactivity and obesity?

Behavioral issues in young males without a physical outlet for aggression?

I'm not sure what type of childhood you had, but the idea the soccer and high school football is going to give a person brain damage is goofy simply based on the current and available data.

If you simply look at that massive number of males that played high school football in, for example, the 1970s, we would have epidemic levels of serious brain issues in an enormous percentage of the the male population. We would be talking about 10s of millions of people with serious brain damage. For example, in 2016, over 1,000,000 young males played high school football. I think it is safe to say that men between 50 and 60 years old do not all have serious brain issues. Even though a very high percentage of those men played high school football.

With that said, we have much lower numbers of men that have played division 1 college football and an even smaller number that played more than a few years in the NFL. In the NFL, the average career length is only 3 years. The speed, size, and strength increases dramatically at that level and we are seeing data that could indicate real issues with brain injury.

It is strange to see people on a site like HN that do not even have a basic understanding of data driven concusions.


> epidemic levels of serious brain issues in an enormous percentage of the the male population

How would we know? Could it be possible that irrational support for extremists is a result of CTE?


> Behavioral issues in young males without a physical outlet for aggression?

There are so many other sports though. Soccer can be played without heading (Barcelona under Pep Guardiola were acclaimed for playing it that way), and there's flag football, basketball, field and ice hockey, lacrosse, wrestling, karate, judo, handball, ultimate Frisbee.


There are many things, for example, becoming morbidly obese and dying of a heart attack in your 20's, getting convicted of a violent crime and being sentenced to life imprisonment, getting killed in a war, getting killed in a car wreck.

Humans are not rational brains riding round in a sort of meat carriage, we are animals and our whole body (and social setting) adds up to who we are. Physical conflict is part of human life - specifically a proportion of young men are predisposed to physical rivalry. Taking options to express this away does not remove the predisposition, it merely shifts it to other outlets which may be much less constrained and much less positive.


Plenty of competitive physical activities don’t involve routine hits to the head...


No, but the ones I and others want to do involve hits to the head. You don't get to decide for me whether the risk of injury is greater than my enjoyment of the sport. You can be dictator of your own life.


I 90% agree - but the inducements and pressure on athletes from the big prizes of sport mean that there is a duty of care as well. The use of padding seems to increase injury in both NFL and Rugby but makes for more spectacular and acceptable TV (players being visibly knocked out or stretchered off are upsetting viewing), gloves and head guards in boxing the same. In Rugby the rules are being altered to reduce blows to the head and being honest I think that it will not change the character of the game at all. Combat sports and soccer are bigger challenges, although for soccer I wonder if the changes in pitches and balls over the last 30 years mean that the data on player injury is much less valid - the aerial game doesn't mean much to Messi after all.


At the pro level, I think I agree with you too. That is different enough from the amateur scene that it deserves its own ethical analysis.


Correction - a risk of damaging your brain. Not a certainty. The difference is important.


But will you even get to approach the risk in the first place?

Every venue will require its leagues/teams playing on it to get insurance. And if nobody will underwrite that insurance, or the price is sky-high, then the sport practically won’t exist at the recreational or professional level.

Doubly so if governments start refusing to subsidize the construction of their rec/professional playing areas.


It's OK by me that things you can't get insurance for die off. Nobody knows risk like insurance companies.


I'm a season ticket holder (for Berkeley). When all the CTE stuff started coming out, I felt a bit guilty but not enough to cancel the tickets. Now I'm not sure how I feel. On the one hand, these kids are aware of the risks and choosing to play anyway. On the other hand, many of them are choosing to play because they come from depressed backgrounds with no other way of paying for or in some cases even getting into college, and football offers a chance to completely change their entire family's situation.

But then again, I was listening to a Freakonomics podcast where they interviewed someone who played football and then went on to get an MBA from Harvard and worked in the executive ranks of both the NFL and NBA.

He's well aware of the CTE risks, but when they asked him if he'd do it all again knowing what he knows now, he said he would still do it, because he grew up poor and now has multiple lifetimes of money. But he would never let his son play, because his son doesn't need to play to get out of a bad life situation like he did. He said it was a sacrifice he'd make again for the sake of his kids and his family. Do we want to deny people that chance to get out of poverty even though they have to knowingly risk their life? I honestly don't know because I didn't grow up poor.


> Do we want to deny people that chance to get out of poverty even though they have to knowingly risk their life?

What if we provided free higher education and stipends rather than making it a carrot to induce those with the right physique to be gladiators? It might get hard to recruit football players, mind you...kind of like how if we actually addressed the systemic problems of poverty in the USA it would be way harder to find volunteers for the military.


You're advocating for taxpayer funded education, aka shifting the cost from one person to another.

The free part you're referring to in other countries, is merely paid for by taxpayers anyway. When trillions of dollars are ultimately involved, it's rather important to never call some of the most expensive welfare services on earth "free."

Who would you say the cost should be shifted from and to? What limits would there be on who benefits from the cost shifting?

Shifting cost doesn't change the cost. US education, much like US healthcare, is wildly expensive due to universities bloating their systems and dramatically over expanding admin. Those costs are not retreating rapidly no matter what we do.

What's your strategy for how much the US can afford to raise taxes to simultaneously pay for hundreds of billions of dollars a year in higher education cost shifting and to meet the epic financial demand for increased socialized healthcare? And I mean in a real scenario, not the one where the US cuts the military budget by hundreds of billions of dollars, because that will never happen.


I don't think we can argue that any 18-year-old is ever fully "aware" of long-term risks, no matter what they are told.

> Do we want to deny people that chance to get out of poverty even though they have to knowingly risk their life?

Turn athletic scholarships into academic scholarships. Also, keep in mind that people who get football scholarships for college are outliers.


> I don't think we can argue that any 18-year-old is ever fully "aware" of long-term risks, no matter what they are told.

hmm, what's that say about letting them vote and enter contracts?


> Do we want to deny people that chance to get out of poverty even though they have to knowingly risk their life? I honestly don't know because I didn't grow up poor.

I think this is unfortunately a specious question. It assumes that we can't give people other ways to get out of poverty, and hides that we the fans don't really give a shit about players getting out of poverty at all - we like the primal, violent aspects of the game. We don't just put up with them, they're what we've been optimizing for for decades. Even before we knew about the mental impacts we knew about the physical ones.


> we like the primal, violent aspects of the game

Do we? I like the strategy. Honestly I'd get just as much enjoyment if they played touch football and replaced the line with counting to three banana.


While some do, at least anecdotally IME people are more often fans of the more violent aspects of the game. So while it is possible to enjoy the game purely for the strategy involved, I suspect that isn't the majority opinion. I'm not a fan of the game, but I will freely admit that the violence is one of the main draws to me for hockey. There definitely is strategy & grace of motion involved in the game, but I can't deny that the visceral elements of the game are a big draw as a spectator. I would also feel fairly confident in stating that this is likely the majority opinion among fans of the sport.


That does make me wonder what the market for actual gladiatorial games would be. I guess that the closest equivalent would be MMA?


Based on "Hit Hit Hit" highlighted in the article, "we" seems accurate, otherwise, outplaying would be more important than physical.


This sounds distrurbingly like gladiator / slave pit fighting. It’s basically a horrible lottery ticket for poor players, most of whom get brain damage and a meaningless college degree, but maybe 2% of whom get life-changing amounts of money (and then some of them get fucked up on drugs or involved in crime anyway...).

It sure does not sound like a good way to distribute opportunity at life success to poor children..


I agree, it's a terrible way to distribute wealth. But it is a way that currently exists. Do we take it away without a replacement?

Yes, long term I think football wouldn't exist if we had lots of wealth redistribution programs. But we don't.


It's trivial to come up with replacements for college football, though, which logically sound as if they would work at least as well.

Example: take the $15M you would pay to a hot coach, and spend it on scholarships directly. Don't make low-income students get brain damage as a condition of education. It's already been established that many football programs aren't cashflow-positive, anyway.


I am not sure I follow you on this. For example state lotteries are widely known to function like a tax on poor people. Even though some people win the lottery, it’s fairly uncontroversial that most people would be better off if the lottery was simply disallowed, and nobody wins. We don’t need a replacement for the lottery, just to remove it.

I don’t see why it’s different for college football.


> Even though some people win the lottery, it’s fairly uncontroversial that most people would be better off if the lottery was simply disallowed, and nobody wins. We don’t need a replacement for the lottery, just to remove it.

There's a big difference between "disallowed" and "does not exist". The lottery as it stands distributes its poor tax proceeds to the state, often to education. It's heavily regulated, and advertisements contain warnings on the dangers of gambling, and I'd say it's common knowledge that it's a tax on the poor.

If it was removed, however, it would leave a vacuum. People are irrational, and the idea that they could get lucky and win is extremely tempting. I don't think you can say with confidence that whatever gambling would take its place would be less harmful than the lottery.


> If it was removed, however, it would leave a vacuum.

For compulsive gamblers, maybe. But I don't think the lottery exists to fill an inherent need. Plenty of industries (harmful and otherwise) exist because someone figured out how to market something/created a lot of their own demand, versus recognizing an existing need.


Athletes & fans can find other sports. There's plenty of room in professional Baseball for athletes if Football is no longer an option.


If you're comparing NFL to MLB, then not really -- there are 1696 NFL roster spaces and only 750 MLB ones.

If you're comparing college football to minor-league professional baseball, then I agree with you.

Really, every sport in the US should be run more like baseball. College baseball is significantly below the level of even the 3rd or 4th tier of the professional minors, and is an optional piece of the overall player development pipeline. The main trajectory of players who eventually make it to the majors is College->Minors->MLB, but High School->Minors->MLB is totally possible. Directly going College->MLB is extremely rare.

It'd be even better if college baseball weren't part of the pipeline at all, and an even lower tier of the minors were added instead, but even as it is the baseball system is much better than football or basketball, where College->{NBA, NFL} is the normal path, and as a result college competition is extremely competitive and serious, and prone to massive corruption.


The obvious replacement is simply another sport that doesn't involve people running head-first into each other at full speed. Turn every football scholarship into one for soccer, baseball, track, etc. Done. Athletes still get a sport to play, spectators still get something to watch.

I'm very much a person that does not say big complex problems have simple solutions. But in this case, it's pretty easy. Play a different damn sport.


It's really not as simple as you make it sound. You completely handwave over how it could be replaced.

Convincing the South-central and Southeast US to start following track instead of American football, is about as realistic as trying to convince Brazil to follow cricket instead of soccer. You are talking about a huge change in culture and customs for many millions of people.

Really the only hope would be some sort of legislation banning football, but it's not feasible to pass dramatically unpopular legislation in a democracy (especially a democracy as deadlocked and slow-moving as the federal level of the US, where even relatively widely supported reforms are impossible or extremely difficult to implement).

A more realistic (still far-fetched, but maybe not literally impossible) proposal would be to spin off college sports teams. Let Auburn Sports, LLC be a separate organization from Auburn University. Let it pay its players and turn a profit. Don't let it grant degrees. The small percentage of people who are qualified for both institutions could attend both simultaneously if they chose to do so. That's already effectively the situation now. A few academically driven players get serious degrees, whereas the vast majority get fake ones. Why not get rid of the pretense?

This wouldn't fix the problem of brain injury, but at least it would eliminate the excuse for exploiting elite sportsmen without pay under the bullshit fig leaf that they're "students".

All the college sports which are genuinely amateur in the sense that they don't make any money or have the possibility of leading to a big-league career (i.e., basically everything except football, basketball, and to a much smaller extent baseball and soccer) could continue to be run by universities for people who would have been students anyway but wanted to also compete in track and field or whatever.


Finally someone I agree with that has weighed the practicality and reality of the situation, instead of trying to create magical solutions that don't exist today.

Outside of cultural interest, people are ignoring the fact of volume of players in the NFL and physical composition of the players.

The NFL has more roster spots than the NBA, NHL, MLB, etc. 22 players are required to play both sides of football. That means they need to employ far more people.

Also, many of these football athletic people wouldn't be good at other sports. An O-Lineman cannot be expected to play basketball or baseball or soccer. They are 6'7 300 lbs of immovable mass, that's what they are built for. This provides entirely different types of athletic individuals to enter into the lottery. Without any data, I would expect the NFL to have the most diverse forms of "athleticism" from any sport, including something like MMA.

Eliminating football entirely doesn't seem like the solution or even realistic to any degree. Instead, let's pay these college players and remove the facade. Make the risks known to the players and let them take that on if they want to.

We can also then address the other solutions that people have suggested because both can exist at the same time.


> They are 6'7 300 lbs of immovable mass, that's what they are built for

This raises the issue that you have many people trying to become this that don't, and we wonder why we have high healthcare costs.


> Convincing the South-central and Southeast US to start following track instead of American football

I grew up in Texas and Louisiana and went to school at LSU, which has the #6 largest college stadium in the US, so I'm well aware of how ingrained in US culture it is.

But culture changes. In 1965, 42.4 percent of adults smoked. It's hard to get more deeply ingrained in the American identity than the Marlboro man, John Wayne, and James Dean. Watch a movie from that era sometime. Everyone is smoking in it. Hell, in Alien, the crew is constantly lighting up and they're in a spaceship in the future.

In 2017, it was down to 14%, and that's for a product that is profoundly chemically addictive and notoriously hard to quit.

All we need to do to "fix" football is keep beating the "you're destroying kids' brains" drum and it will wither and die. Football depends entirely on culture and popularity. If it becomes less cool, less socially approved, it will fall. Especially when there are easy substitutes. If you still want to throw on a jersey and go to a game with your buddies, just go to the nearest baseball, soccer, or basketball game instead.


> Convincing the South-central and Southeast US to

Interesting if only because the 2018 MLS Champions, are Atlanta United; and regularly sold more seats than the superbowl.


> it's a terrible way to distribute wealth. But it is a way that currently exists. Do we take it away without a replacement?

I think that's a false choice. Without the massive cost sports programs, it's possible (not a given--there's an argument to be made that sports programs attract more money than they spend) that many freed-up resources could be dedicated to helping underprivileged people achieve academic and career success.

Also, there's a strong possibility that wealth-redistribution-via-sports-programs (which I'm not convinced is statistically significant, but whatever) is offset or surpassed by the severe health problems faced by redistribution-beneficiaries who end up with brain injuries.


Do most college football players get brain damage?

I've met a decent amount of former college football players and none had (obvious) signs of brain damage.

I don't think that most smokers die of lung cancer either.


That’s a good point with probably a complex answer that needs a lot more research. From the article,

> “the work of the Boston University C.T.E. center, which found evidence of degenerative brain disease in 99 percent of brains obtained from deceased N.F.L. players and 91 percent of college football players and 21 percent of those who played high school football.”

Of course there’s a causality problem here as to whether people who died and thus could have their brains examined are simply more susceptible to the concussive effects, but you may also suggest that, unless we can diagnose those people ahead of time, it doesn’t matter because it represents some fraction of players taking a far more serious health risk without knowing it, especially for the 1/5 number among high school athletes. Further, the article mentions lots of other problems beyond explicit CTE issues, like migraines, nerve damage, shakes and memory lapses.

It brings up all kinds of questions about child welfare, acceptable risk, exploitation of poor athletes, association with a college scholarship, and so on.


> Do most college football players get brain damage?

FTA: "[...] the Boston University C.T.E. center, which found evidence of degenerative brain disease in 99 percent of brains obtained from deceased N.F.L. players and 91 percent of college football players and 21 percent of those who played high school football."

91% certainly qualifies as "most" in my book.


That study has a selection bias; the athletes' families all suspected that their player had CTE. So it's not accurate to say that 91% of college football players will get CTE.

But, it's still an enormous indictment of the sport. Enough that when that study came out, I just lost all taste for watching football. (Which was not a stretch, I never followed much, but I did occasionally pay attention or watch with friends.) With those kinds of numbers, I think it's fair to say that if you play college football, your chances of developing CTE are very high. I think of it as similar to smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. I just think it's important to be clear on the parameters of that study, which means being careful when citing the numbers.


Self-selection, though. That's consistent with <50% of players getting brain damage.


He’s an outlier. The overwhelming majority of college football players will make no money from it.


No but they will have a college degree. And in 26% of the cases they are the first person in their family to have a degree.


The correct way to solve this problem is to make it so that poor but intelligent people can get into college and afford it, not to give fake credentials to people based on football skill.


This has it's own inherent bias. Poorer families have less structure and can make it harder for kids in those households to succeed academically. Sports at least allows another avenue for children of lower income families to find their way to college.

There should just also be more money for lower income academic students. But, that is far harder to monetize. Football programs generate tons of money, which then pays for the student to attend that school for free.


> Poorer families have less structure

What? Citation needed.

I totally grant your conclusion that there are big obstacles to academic success for kids growing up in poverty, but, if what you mean what I think you mean, that's a wrong basis for that conclusion.


[0] - http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/child-poverty-ra...

[1] - https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/17/parenting-in-amer...

I am not sure what you think I mean. But what I mean is poorer families have less support, and parents spend less time with their children. This can have cognitive and emotional impact on them impacting academic success and overall emotional maturity.


I’m neither the poster nor do I have any citations, but it does seem difficult to argue that a single parent household where the breadwinner is working two or three jobs won’t have less active supervision.


A very significant number of recruits never graduate, with big name programs like Texas and Oklahoma struggling to graduate half of the team.


Around 30% of college football players never graduate; a number I would expect to be overrepresentative of people from impoverished backgrounds.


What about a degree?


Often it’s essentially an on-paper degree in soft majors specifically designed to cater to athlete schedules and ensure minimal attendance or effort is needed to pass and stay eligible for sports.

For the majority of D-1 student athletes, unless they go pro (a tiny percentage) or otherwise convert their college fame into a career, the degree does not open any doors. There are exceptions, but it’s rare.

Even athletes who do make it pro are often fucked over by the teams they play for, agents, financial advisors, etc., and a lot of them still end up poor, especially if they are more of a roster player who only manage to stay in the league for a few seasons.

For example, I’d guess a lot of people reading this article earn more than median salary for Major League Soccer. In 2016 the median was around $117,000 per year, with around 40 players (on senior rosters) earning the league minimum of about $55,000 [1].

Professional sports leagues are pretty brutal places for all but the biggest stars and of course managers and executives (unsurprisingly disproportionately white men as well...).

[1]: https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinasettimi/2016/09/07/maj...


Just having a BA in anything is going to open more job opportunities than not having one. Even just having an Associates is going to open more than just a highschool diploma. A lot of athletes get degrees in things like biology and communications, not exceptionally hard majors but they still have that piece of paper if they graduate. Unless you want to work minimum wage or ruin your body working manual labor, a degree in anything is required.

Could these kids have gone further in life going to a trade school? Could they have joined the military and went to college for a competitive degree under the GI Bill? Maybe, but at the time, a scholarship to play football at a university was a lot of kids only opportunity.


It's honestly very difficult for me to understand this mentality. Is a degree supposed to represent a certain level of education, or is it just an arbitrary way of sorting people into different social classes?

There was another article on HN about how a masters' degree in physics increases earnings and is a great career move. Should we find a few thousand kids who are outliers in some bodily attribute every year, and arbitrarily give them physics masters' degrees? Wouldn't there be some serious drawbacks to this? How is this different from giving BAs with basically zero academic requirements to people because of their football skill?

The system in the US is just so bizarre. In every single other country in the world[1], universities are one thing, and elite amateur or semi-pro sports leagues are another thing, and nobody would really imagine mixing them.

[1]: This is literally true, as far as I know, but please correct me if I'm wrong. I actually get pretty annoyed when people talk about how the US is the "only country in the world" with various problems like violence or healthcare, because usually by "the world" they mean "highly developed Western and Northern Europe". But in this case I think there are actually literally zero other examples of countries with the dysfunctional fusion of academia and semi-pro sports that exists in the US.


Unfortunately, the US poor and middle class cannot usually attend higher-education unless given a massive scholarship through some sort of application process (which they might not even get) or take out large loans that take decades to pay back in most cases. Athletic programs offer help to the few that perform at the peak of their sport. It's not a great system, it's a lottery for student athletes who can't afford college. I don't think university athletics programs are the worst thing, it should be separate but it's not the major problem. The major issue is the requirement of a college degree for anything and the lack of major public funding. Sure, you can get grants from the govt that help cover school but very few people can attend school with zero expenses. I think that part needs to change. I think free college (and discounted university tuition) would greatly improve things. It would also have an affect of university athletics program where they wouldn't be able to dangle such massive opportunities in poor people's faces to attract them to their school. If kids are less focused on getting the athletic scholarship, they would be able to focus on school more.


>Even athletes who do make it pro are often fucked over by the teams they play for, agents, financial advisors, etc., and a lot of them still end up poor, especially if they are more of a roster player who only manage to stay in the league for a few seasons.

Yes, but that is supposing they would not end up the same way had they not played. Also there are lots of people would love to earn 55K to play soccer. Lots of people actually pay for the privilege to play normal people in their same city...


> "Yes, but that is supposing they would not end up the same way had they not played."

That's supposing they would wind up with brain damage if they had not played. For most it seems likely to be a net loss, but try explaining that to a teenager who only wants to consider the moonshot of making it big.


The thing is there are already a huge number of sports that he could partificpate in and make a living, especially in the US. American Football just has deep pockets and is willing to hush anyone who provides evidence of CTE.

Soccer, Hockey, Basketball, Tennis, Golf, could have all offered the same opportunities for this athlete without the brain damage that is pretty much guaranteed from playing at a competitive level.


Soccer and hockey are not that safe for CTE, hockey is a full contact sport, the younger one is, the easier it is to get concussed and the impact from heading a soccer ball is enough that those under 14 or so should never be allowed to head the ball.

contact sports increases risks for CTE signficantly for kids who only played in childhood: https://www.webmd.com/brain/news/20151203/playing-contact-sp...


The PFA in the UK is looking at brain damage due to heading the ball.


what if he had the opportunity, just in a different sport that didn't damage people?

Soccer players the world over come from poor backgrounds to earn riches playing sport. Soccer has its flaws, but its not on the same level of dangerous. A fairly simple switch from American Football to What-the-rest-of-the-world-calls Football.

You could buy a different season ticket and be part of that change...


Reports cite soccer as a major source of CTE injuries as well. (Also, men's and women's hockey.)


fair enough. Chess then? ;)


It seems that repetitive head injuries are really something that has long term consequences. The issue is VERY complex and has a lot of factors. One thing to look at is the complex data on other sports[0]. It turns out that men's rugby and women's ice hockey are also big magnets, along with soccer/futbol. It seems to be that just about any hit to the head can be damaging, regardless of equipment. The 'violence' of American football may be a correlated factor, but not causative.

But we're just beginning to understand these things. More data is needed, unfortunately. It seems that these athletes really are suffering.

[0] https://completeconcussions.com/2018/12/05/concussion-rates-...

P.S. I've also struggled with these issues. I've written on HN before about them and won't bore here. Suffice to say, though I've had deep struggles with concussions, and in the end I'd say I wish I'd not done those sports as a result, it is a hard question to answer. If I could be back out on that pitch once more with my mates and be guaranteed to not get another head injury, I'd do it in a heartbeat. I loved that time and really do miss it everyday, even decades later, I love rugby. I wasn't an easy thing to quit, and it is still not easy to stay away from. The concussion epidemic is not going to be easy to solve.


> More data is needed, unfortunately.

I’ve slowly been convinced that more data isn’t needed before we act on this. The only reason there’s a call for more data is that these sports are very popular and drive revenue. We have enough data to say “yes, these sports pose a serious risk to the health of those playing them.” That doesn’t mean to have to stop playing them, but it does mean we can’t throw our hands up and claim we just don’t know why these kids keep getting brain injuries.


I think most programs admit and accept the physical risks of physical sports. Brain trauma is less understood than something like a knee injury, but that's exactly why these studies need to continue to gather data. We can continue to improve safety during play, detection of damage, and treatment after injury.

Anecdotally, most youth leagues I see for contact sports have changed their rules to better protect the players. I would be against any legislation doing the same for adults who are informed of the risk.

What other actions would you propose?


Agreed. I can't help but think that some calls for more data is just intentionally delaying doing the right thing. Will any amount of data ever satisfy diehard fans and those who financially benefit from college football?

Great talk about this very point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWaPXzTDEDw


I played high school football, and my family is a "football family" with Dad and other relatives having played at the college level. I loved the game and had many great experiences. I'm sad to write it, but that tradition ends with me. I will absolutely not allow any children I might have to play this game.

I often wonder how badly my own brain is damaged.

Coincidentally, I also did my undergrad at CU.


Quite popular among middle schoolers in my city is Ultimate Frisbee [0]. It flows similarly to football, at least for an European eye, but without rushing or tackling.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimate_(sport)


Ultimate was hugely popular in the social circles I went to college and worked with. It's faster-paced than football, has relatively little risk of injury, and the rules are easy to explain. It's also the most accessible sport in terms of equipment needed: all you need is a 50-cent frisbee and an open playing field. Even beats soccer and basketball in that regard.


It's more like rugby than American football.

The physicality of the linemen and other blockers is key to the whole game of American football. It's like you have a group sumo match and then a rugby game happening around it.

It adds strategy, tactics, misdirection, and specialization of abilities you don't see in other sports.


The sumo comparison is quite apt, and also present in rugby, at least in scrum situations. OTOH, in rugby passing forward is prohibited. Not so in ultimate or football, where passing forward is a defining characteristic of the game.


We already have football without tackling - flag football or touch football. Most of us play flag or touch football in school. Only a tiny fraction of people who play football play organized tackle football.

Frisbee is nice, but there is nothing like throwing a tight spiral or catching a football.


High school football is most commonly full-contact/"tackle", and the source of most football-related injuries, because most players don't advance beyond that level. I think that in most of the country, K-8 schools don't organize football teams, but I did know kids who played flag football in park district youth leagues.


This is entertaining, because football was almost eliminated from US universities in the early 20th century because it was too lethal. Teddy Roosevelt stepped into broker a rules change to remove the most lethal parts of the game.

> Cabral loves the band of brothers aspect of football

Or join ROTC if you want the real thing.

> We should move in the direction of offering lifelong insurance and medical care for football players who become badly damaged,” said John Kroll

The problem with this is that it's hard to say when the brain injury occurred, since its effects manifest down the road. So we should probably require high schools and Pop Warner leagues to carry lifelong insurance for players.


I hope that American football does not exist in its current state in 10 years. Ideally, a test will be developed to detect CTE before you're dead. I was a lineman. I hit hard, and I was knocked out several times over the course of a decade or so of play. There's no way to play football in a 'safe' manner. The tactics and the equipment have evolved in a way that maximizes risk of brain injury.


What about going back to leather helmets and other less armor like equipment? Sure, there will probably be a steep injury spike as people try to play in current styles with less padding, but maybe they'll go back to actually tackling rather than trying to light someone up for the sake of it. Rugby seems to do alright without all of the body armor.


> Rugby seems to do alright without all of the body armor.

Rugby has very different rules on physical engagement, and has never seen the epidemic of deaths that American Football had.


I'm currently sitting in a Boulder Cafe at Galvanize reading this article, and wondering if a high school peer that I know -- Tennyson McCartney -- who also played for the CU team back in the day had CTE. He also committed suicide 10 years back. Remember him as a giant of a guy that was smart and kind.


Why do we continue to allow our institutions of higher learning (namely high schools and colleges) to promote this sport? The very organizations charged with making our children smarter sponsor a sport proven to cause brain damage. At some point these institutions need to be held accountable for this, only when that happens will we see any change.


Simple: money. The money earned from football events pay for so much of that institution's budget. Friday Night Lights is a tradition that's not going to change.


Actually this is not true. Many top athletics programs lose substantial amounts of money, even after accounting for TV deals,

https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/sports/wp/2015/11/23/runni...

There’s some unsubstantiated claim that constantly growing expenditure on sports is requires like a marketing arms race to advertise to potential students, but I haven’t seen much data backing that.

My guessis that, just as with most professional sports clubs, college athletics programs by design are intrinsically huge loss leaders designed to be vehicles by which coaches & administrators extract money from the university.

For the tiny fraction of top teams with massive fan bases, they can get away with this while being profitable. For almost all other programs, they burn through money chasing success and profitability for a while, and after enough consecutive seasons of financial losses, they retreat to fiscal austerity and a decline in the athletics department while some other programs are on an upswing.


It doesn't have to be a surprising economic argument. People like football. They're obsessed with it. Of course they have it at their schools.


People also like running, video games or chess to name a few. Football, even with its popularity, is unique in providing an enrichment pipeline from high school to the pros that a few benifet from quite a bit.


Football is a sport where when I first saw it, I thought it was basically a sports analogy to war, including damaging soldiers. Like boxing, I simply cannot comprehend why people want to do sports where injury is a routine component of the activity.


It sort of was a "sports analogy to war." It was created after the American Civil War, which killed around 1 million people, and football was at least in part an attempt to "keep our Ivy League boys tough." Now people do it for the money, pride, or fame.

Football, like pankration, creates incredible athletes, but that doesn't mean that the sport should still exist.


> Like boxing, I simply cannot comprehend why people want to do sports where injury is a routine component of the activity.

football is probably one of the more dangerous sports, and it's getting a lot of attention right now due to CTE concerns. that said, injury is a routine component of pretty much all sports at the highest level. you can't be the best in the world at a physical activity without pushing your body to its very limits.


yes, but there's a difference between running and causing self-injury, and a sport where people actually have to collide.


Because it's enjoyable? Because they find some meaning in it? Why do they do any dangerous activity at all? If everyone was super concerned about their own safety above all else, then many activities (including basically all extreme sports) would have gone extinct.

Either way, I think people are way too obsessed with making life 'safe', when what matters should be that people can enjoy what they want as long as it doesn't risk those aren't willing participants.


many of my friends who did football did so because their parents made them. I don't think it's reasonable to push back against that if the long term consequences are high (for example, my friend's patella ended up wrapped around on the back side of his leg on a bad hit, he has permanent problems with mobility due to playing football at 18).


> Like boxing, I simply cannot comprehend why people want to do sports where injury is a routine component of the activity

Have you tried it? It's great fun


> “My dad always told me the name of the game is hit, hit, H-I-T. There is always a place on the field for someone who will hit.”

This is just sad.

Would love to see data before and after "hitting" replaced "tackling".


I've spoken with multi-generation football family coaches, players who say that the sport is headed for an end. I'm not sure I believe that.

It comes down to whether a safe helmet can be made or whether a CTE treatment can be created. (Both of those seem like very difficult goals.)

The number of participants in the kids leagues has been declining for a while: https://www.statista.com/statistics/191658/participants-in-t... What parent would allow their high schooler to play if there is a 21% chance of lifelong disability, loss of earnings potential, etc.?


A safer helmet isn't the only way out, though. Rules can be changed to shape the game away from the big hits as well.

Change the rules so there isn't so long between plays and all the optimal players get smaller and more athletic, and they can't "rest and reset" for the next big play. All of a sudden, the magnitude of the collisions goes down substantially.

"Unfortunately" then an NFL game wouldn't be good for 3+ hours of TV advertisements, so there's a lot of incentive to keep the pace slow.


They should make the field slower.


For example, maybe they could adopt something like ultimate frisbee rules? A receiver is marked down at the spot where a catch is made. Eliminate running backs and tackling from the game entirely.

Defenders can try to jockey for position to intercept the ball or deflect passes (but still can result in pass interference), or they can rush the quarterback from the line of scrimmage, where pass blocking operates mostly unchanged from how it is today.

Perhaps tackling the quarterback (with continued improvements on protecting a defenseless QB) is the only place where tackling is still allowed.

This would get rid of about 99% of the situations where there are violent, high-speed collisions, and where tacklers coming from the linebacker or safety positions end up involving the head in violent tackles.

The obvious downside is that it eliminates rushing or yards-after-catch from receivers, especially long, wide-open touchdown sprints.

But I don’t see how open field running and tackling can possibly coexist with concussion safety in the future of the sport.

There will be some type of huge reckoning I think.


Then we just get bigger offensive and defensive lines, who still take big hits. Making the field faster might be a solution - moving the game towards hockey rather than rugby speed.


Speed makes hits catastrophic. A slower field means those linemen (who are taking hits every play) are doing so with less impact. A faster field and those linemen launch into each other with even greater force and impact. The running backs up the middle are going even faster when they get stuffed by a faster linebacker.

Make the field slower. No three point stance. Extreme version would be no runs inside the tackles so we see mostly lateral movement and pass plays.

Step one is to stop funding football with the schools. Private clubs can show proof of insurance.


If you move the game along faster and reduce the resting time between plays, the average player is going to shrink back closer to something more closely resembling a normal human, so the reaction mass (and thus severity of collisions) will drop a lot as well.


It seems the way to make the game safer is, ironically, to reduce the safety equipment. After all, if you have more skin in the game, so to speak, the less you might make or take on risky maneuvers. Of course, there are always those who are going to go for broke and do it anyway,

So maybe the way to win is not to play,

A similar sport is rugby, but the incidence and possibility of injury is pretty high there, if you read the news. Plus, rugby is un-American, just as American football is un-Worldwide. So changing sports isn't really an answer, either. Basketball isn't the same kind of sport, though I took a few elbows in the face and a knee or two in a very unfortunate spot, so yeah, it rates up there.

I grew up in a small Texas town where football was practically a second church (technically, 4th, since there were three churches in town). I broke a couple of bones and sprained both ankles multiple times before I was out of elementary, plus I was rail-thin, so by the time football rolled around I was pretty risk-averse. However, I "managed" the team, which meant doing a lot of menial tasks the the coach didn't want to. I was also the cameraman.

There were several times I observed some pretty serious injuries. One of our tackles shattered his right thumb to the point where it was very difficult to reconstruct. I watched a running back go over the line and got pinned between two tackles, right at the hip, not only taking him out of the game, but putting him in serious condition in the hospital for a week (the term used at the time was "bone-bruise" and he was on crutches for the rest of the season, at least). During training, despite every precaution, I saw people suffer from heat-stroke and -exhaustion because we started training in the 110-degree August sun.

These weren't urban kids, either. They were small-town farmboys, used to working in heat and taking hits from the occasional obstreperous cow or a kick from a nervous horse (those were few and far between, thankfully). I once had my bell rung by a charging sheep desperate to get out of a trailer, so I know what a concussion feels like, after you wake up. No hospital trip, either. Just sucked it up and went back to work.

The point is: that these guys were were willing to take some damage just to play a sport. They were middle-school and high-school kids, ready to take on the world, without considering the potential risks. Their parents encouraged it (my grandparents were pretty much neutral about it) and when one of their kids got injured, it was just part of the game, even if the damage was fairly traumatic. None of these guys were particularly violent at the time, but if there was fight, they weren't going to back down and so the prospect of being padded up and charging the other guy wasn't that big of a deal.

How do you even begin to compete against that sort of mentality?

NOTE: Not to knock om people who grew up in an urban environment, but I think growing up in a rural farming community carries a higher risk of injury. When working around livestock you have to be on your game at all times, since you can't just take a break for a minor injury, that would otherwise entail a trip to the family doctor for a quick checkup. That was potentially a whole day lost. Anything above a minor sprain or a small cut could have some serious effects on production.


> It seems the way to make the game safer is, ironically, to reduce the safety equipment. After all, if you have more skin in the game, so to speak, the less you might make or take on risky maneuvers.

This seems like saying the way to make the roads safer is to take seatbelts and airbags out of cars, because then people will be incentivized to drive more carefully.

And the football case is even worse, because on the roads nobody's future career hinges on how recklessly they're willing to drive. College football players on the other hand have huge financial motivations to be willing to ignore the risks and hit hard, since if they aren't, they are likely to lose their chance at one of the tiny number of jobs in professional football to someone else who is.


If all kids could just sit on the sofa and play video games we'd all be much healthier.


False dichotomy. You can get strenuous, competitive, healthful physical activity without ever risking brain trauma. Swimming, tennis, track and field, etc.


Weird to hear about my school in the news, mostly because I stay on the other side of campus and don't give a flying fuck about the D1 sports. Besides, we're usually not that competitive.


> “My dad always told me the name of the game is hit, hit, H-I-T."

The article doesn't touch the board response beyond this quote, but this mindset seems problematic. In a sport marked by injuries at all levels, and in this concussion centric area, it says a lot about ignoring the issues that such would be a tagline. Why it's different from a Nascar team purposefully running people off the road is a question begging to be asked. And that a majority of the fans probably watch for the hits, much like Nascar fans in the 90s is problematic.

It's probably affecting society in other ways too - obesity epidemic, family violence, us vs them mentality

Basketball, Soccer, even "real" football fans are looking for the play development and strategy much more than the "hits".


One example is that "Hit, Hit Hit" is as extreme as "Chug Chug Chug" might be in alcohol consumption. There's speed, skill, strategy, player rotation, juking, wrapping up, deflecting --- but hit hit hit is the rallying cry.


What's most important in this conversation is to remember that we're not talking about football. We're talking about college athletics as a whole. Just because degrees attained while playing college football are largely worthless because of how little time is able to be spent studying does not mean that degrees attained with less-demanding sports (say, gymnastics or soccer) are equally worthless.


Are you sure? Because the article doesn't mention 'degree' or 'graduate' at all. This article is only about the culture of violence in football and its repercussions later in life. There are tons of other articles and talks about this, but here, there's nothing.

I hate the NCAA. People who think players don't deserve to get paid for what they bring to the table in football or basketball because they're getting free education are incredibly wrong. The culture of the majority of the programs and also the desire of the players themselves don't put education first. But this article isn't about that issue, it's about injuries in football alone.


It seems like you're extrapolating either from another comment or comments in the article.

The aspect that the board member cites is the "Hit, Hit, Hit" war cry,

Gymnastics, soccer, and basketball aren't using "hit, hit, hit" as a cry.


For those unaware the above comment is likely about how american football programs fund almost entirely all athletics and some amount of academics at universities.


I don't think that's accurate. Many top-level football programs lose money. See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/sports/wp/2015/11/23/runni...


Thanks for mentioning this, it's important; we're told, tv money, etc, but every bowl season schools not in the top 10 have to face a choice of making money or losing money


My point was that the rules are the same across all sports. If you make a change that will positive affect football athletes, that change might not be so positive for the other sports it will affect as well.

Although, you are absolutely correct in your comment as well.




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