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Are Sports at Harvard Worth the Risk?

By James D. Davis
James D. Davis graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2016.

Football season is upon us. The current instantiation of the 10,000 men of Harvard take the field on Sept. 21 and finish on Nov. 23 when, for the 136th time, Harvard locks horns with Yale. But the battle surrounding Harvard football will not end there.

Harvard football, and football in general, is under fire. Due to public health concerns over concussions, participation in football is steadily declining.

In 2018, a writer in The Crimson suggested that football presents an unnecessary level of danger and Harvard ought to drop the sport. In 2015, another writer posed the question: “Should Harvard, a school that’s mission is to provide students with a ‘transformational’ education, really be rewarding high school students for playing a sport that risks their physical and mental well-being?”

The path to student success most certainly includes health and wellness. But a more pragmatic proposition might be, “Do sports like football contribute enough to Harvard’s culture of transformational education to validate the health risks?”

While it would be inaccurate to describe football as “safe,” it seems as though popular media might be blowing the risks out of proportion. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls — not football — are the number one cause of traumatic brain injury. Since tripping and falling is mostly out of institutional control, it is fair to focus on athletics and other school sponsored activities.

In a 2011 study titled The Epidemiology of Sport-Related Concussion, researchers found that women’s ice hockey had the highest incident rate of concussion with nearly one concussion per 1000 exposures to risk either during practice or games.

If we want to eliminate concussion risks for Harvard students, then women’s hockey has to go. Harvard would have to “drop the puck,” as it were.

We would then have to ditch both men’s ice hockey and women’s soccer (.41/1000). Next would be football which has higher levels in a brief spring practice period (.54), but only .37 during the regular season.

After that, throw out men’s soccer (.28), wrestling (.25), men’s lacrosse (.25), women’s lacrosse (.25), women’s basketball (.22), and field hockey (.18). Equestrianism – that’s right, horseback riding – accounts for more concussions per participant than any other sport. In other words, sports in general would have to be dismantled.

The truth is, football might not the demon popular media has made it out to be. However, we do need to work toward making it safer.

And we are. In 2016, the Ivy League changed the kickoff rules by moving the ball placement up 5 yards, from the 35-yard line to the 40, to increase the likelihood of touchbacks (when the ball lands in the end zone and is not able to be returned by NCAA rules). Concussions on the kickoff dropped from approximately one in 100 to one in 500.

The concussion discussion is anchored not by concussions at all, which are classified by temporary symptoms, but fear of the long-term degenerative effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. There too, the science seems to be changing. Recent research identifies the disease in people who had not experienced multiple concussive or subconcussive impacts. It turns out that CTE may not be an athlete disease after all.

On the other side of the risk-reward calculation are the many benefits sports bring. One is the institutional value of transformational education. Education does not occur exclusively in a lecture hall. Sports provide the opportunity to practice real-world application of qualities engrained in the very nature of education: communication, complex-problem solving, delay-of-gratification and resilience, among countless other capacities.

Sports also provide an opportunity to those who would not otherwise have access to an Ivy League education. Recent Ivy League financial aid policies have enhanced the range of student-athletes at many top institutions. Yale’s volleyball coach, Erin Appleman, recently acknowledged that “at least half of her recent recruits were from middle-class families who would not have attended Yale, or any Ivy League university, even five years ago.” Access to higher education matters. Sports play a large role in cultivating a diverse set of perspectives — perspectives which are essential to a transformational culture of education.

Furthermore, sports can offer young people the scaffolding they need to hold up an educational experience. Many college athletes benefit from a structured escape from the stressors of academic life. That was certainly true for me.

That framework has the potential to extend beyond a career. In modern America, unique on a global scale, more than 100 million of us are either diabetic or prediabetic. Habits of health learned through an athletic career might be able to combat that epidemic.

Those calling for the end of football should note that diabetes and neurological health are not separate concerns — cognitive dysfunction is a well-known complication of diabetes. Perhaps this is the wrong time to eliminate goal-oriented, community-enhancing forms of physical activity.

So the real question is, should Harvard eliminate athletics as an opportunity for a transformational education, or work to enhance those opportunities by supporting coach and player education, with added emphasis on injury prevention and recovery?

The answer is obvious.

James D. Davis graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2016.

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