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Skip The Game

By Eric M. Coles

This Saturday, you could go apple-picking, enjoy the last days of the fall foliage, catch some art at the Museum of Fine Arts, or binge something on Netflix. But, please, I urge you, don’t watch the Harvard-Yale football game.

I’m not saying this as someone who doesn’t appreciate football. I used to be a huge fan and I know how much fun it is. Throughout much of my life, each autumn brought the same pattern—college football on Saturday and the National Football League every Sunday. The mornings consisted of pre-game shows with predictions for the day, then the glorious hours of the games themselves, and then the night-cap on SportsCenter.

Fantasy football made it even better. League drafts in the summer. Hours of predictions and analysis. Watching every score to see if the right receiver caught the touchdown. Checking who you were playing to root against those guys. Counting up points—it made the return to school almost bearable. It was a blast.

But a study published this past summer changed my opinion. Neuroscientists from Boston University found chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 110 of 111 brains of former NFL players. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a progressive, degenerative brain disorder caused by repeated brain trauma. It can change someone’s mood and behavior, and cause memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and eventually progressive dementia.

The study also found that the prevalence of CTE varied by the amount of football played; 48 of 53 college players had it (91 percent), while only three of 14 high school players (21 percent). The most severe forms were found in the professional players. The researchers therefore concluded that, “there is very likely a relationship between exposure to football and risk of developing the disease.”

The study was not perfect. The researchers relied on donated brains, which means that the samples weren’t random, and there was no control group, so we don’t know how the rates of CTE in football players compare to non-football players. Moreover, there may have been confounding factors such as alcohol or drug abuse and genetic predisposition. These caveats are important to note and will surely spur further research. But the conclusion of the study is still damning: Football players are very likely to have an increased risk of developing CTE.

From this conclusion, several arguments can be made against watching football. One is the safety of current players—their health may be in jeopardy during every snap. Another argument is preventative—we need to prevent the children of today from developing problems in the future. There is also possibly a moral argument that football is a sordid sport that we shouldn’t spend an afternoon watching. These arguments all have merits. But none of them get at why Harvard students shouldn’t watch.

We now know that football players very likely have increased risk of developing a debilitating brain disease. What will we do with that information? Something needs to be done. As ostensibly the premier University in the world, we must show that new research matters in society, and that we can adapt and change because of it. I urge the Harvard student body not to watch the Game to show that evidence has power, that data and facts matter and can change behavior. So, take football off this Saturday and do something else.

I know that changing is difficult. It sucks when something that you think you know so well turns out to be something different. I knew football well. My good friends played and I used to watch their games. But when I was a kid, no one articulated the health risks that we are now aware of.

My future kids will know these risks and, whether we like it or not, football is no longer as safe as we thought. Things will need to change and as Harvard students, we should lead that change from the vanguard. If not us, then who? Yale? We need to beat them at something.

Eric M. Coles is a graduate student at the Harvard School of Public Health in the Doctor of Public Health program.

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