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Universities And The Young Minds They Tend

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the National Football League, which currently generates more than $13 billion in revenue a year, is having trouble coming to terms with the connection between traumatic head injury and football.

It’s all over the news these days from the New York Times to the Washington Post -- and the evidence is clear: the NFL has systemically tried to minimize the magnitude of traumatic brain injury in football.  They have even created their own medical and scientific committees (for years chaired by a rheumatologist with no experience in neuroscience, Dr. Elliott Pellman) to discredit strong scientific data that connects repeated “subconcussive” blows to long-term brain impairment. 

The NFL has also invested considerable time and money in order to generate their own studies and science using flawed data.  As the New York Times reports, some NFL teams reported zero concussions to the data gathering that helped to inform the league’s approach to concussions for the last several years. Even concussions as public as several that Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman suffered and the one that ended San Francisco quarterback Steve Young’s career were not reported for the study. Such faulty data suggests an intentional obfuscation. 

Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, just recently called the suggested connection between Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, and football “absurd” because the body of knowledge is not there. Mr. Jones’ point is that we can’t really diagnose CTE until after death. And the only brains being studied are those that were donated because their owners suffered symptoms of CTE. Mr. Jones has the NFL’s own data to prove his point. Not to mention his team’s own lack of reporting to thank for the data’s “science” as well.

With so much revenue at stake, the cover-up makes perfect sense. Pardon the pun— it’s a no-brainer. There is more to lose in terms of revenue for the NFL than the league stands to gain by doing the right thing.  America’s sacred cow of profit generation can mask all sorts of morally indefensible behavior.  The tobacco industry showed us that. And so maybe we Americans are not surprised by such a massive attempt to protect the NFL brand at the expense of human lives. 

It is fair for us to assume, however, that collegiate athletics stands on higher and firmer moral ground when it comes to head injuries and football.  After all, our institutions of higher learning are keepers of some of America’s highest moral ideals. These are institutions created not to generate profit, but to foster learning and growth.  These are institutions whose reason for being is to cultivate the moral fabric of our civil society, to kindle ethical standards for our economic, political, and social relationships.  These are institutions who boast of forming young minds to be their best and to realize their dreams. 

Unfortunately those values seem to atrophy or even disappear when you walk in the door of athletic departments across the country.  These same athletic departments help generate revenue streams for the billion-dollar business of college athletics. When we take a closer look at athletic departments and their approach to the long-term health of their revenue athletes we see marks of an NFL-like obfuscation.

A superficial look reveals evidence of “best practices” and new and improved concussion protocols. Diagnostic tests have found their way to sidelines, more care is taken to not return players to the game who are symptomatic, helmets are confiscated to prevent ill-advised returns to the field, and coaches are supposedly taken out of the decision-making loop on return-to-play choices. Objective medical personnel are used instead to make the call.

Beneath the surface of these “best practices,” however, there is clear evidence of a refusal to take a hard look at preventative measures and other data that could help to truly protect the young men and women who play sports in our universities. And the NCAA, which is composed of its university member institutions, has charted the course for further research on head injuries. It is investing in studies that compare the brain imaging of concussed athletes to the brains of athletes without concussion diagnoses who have been playing in similar conditions.  If the science of subconcussive hits is heeded, however, this approach shows its own set of fatal flaws. If this sounds too disappointing to be true, look no further than Purdue University for a case in point.

No other school in the country, perhaps in the world, has the caliber of engineers and scientists that Purdue has.  In the stellar ranks of Purdue’s faculty are two tenured engineers, Tom Talavage and Eric Nauman.  These two men are part of Purdue’s Neurotrauma Group, which is engaged in cutting-edge research on sports-related head injury.  The amazing thing about the work these men are doing is that they can see brain changes using Magnetic Resonance Imaging in players who have never been diagnosed with concussions.  Their unique approach is unmatched and rests in their method of taking pre-season scans that enable clear evidence of brain changes in players who are asymptomatic and undiagnosed for concussions.

This study not only generates unique and potent data about the effects of repeated subconcussive blows, but it includes new helmet technologies and data-gathering techniques that could save football from its own demise. In short, the Purdue Neurotrauma Group has proven methods of prevention, not just protocols for treatment after a concussion happens. Concussions are just the tip of the iceberg. As post-mortem brain studies are showing us, football players who may not have ever been diagnosed with a concussion have brains that suffer from CTE. 

Talavage and Nauman have the technology and the data to fill in these blanks. And better yet, they have the technology and the data to make football safer. What an exciting prospect to have such a ground-breaking and practical study right here in the Big 10, one of the two wealthiest sports conferences in the country.  It is clear that Purdue has an opportunity to not just do the right thing by its athletes, but to set the pace for concrete ways to prevent head injuries in sports.  All the conditions are there for a win-win situation.

The Purdue Athletic Department, however, has chosen not to participate in the study.  The presenting cause of the decision to pass on participating is the cost.  Figures ranging from $20,000 for partial data gathering on a select group of contact sport athletes to $400,000 a year for a more inclusive approach with all athletes at Purdue are what Talavage and Nauman quote as the cost (in a recent episode of the podcast Going Deep: Sports in the 21st Century). The larger university has also opted not to channel funds toward this study in its newest round of fund allocations. The technology for profound and effective prevention is there, the willingness to invest and participate in it is not. 

In this case, a university’s lofty values of lighting the mind are sidelined for motives no one seems to be able to name.  If the NFL is any indication, it may be that the moral calculus of doing the right thing gets lost in the maintenance of a lucrative money machine.

If only universities like Purdue put their money where their mouths are, or at least where the brains of those our universities say they want to light with knowledge are, then the NFL would be a foil to a more excellent way on display at places like Purdue.  The greatest threat to the long-term health of athletes at every level is not concussions; it is the moral ambivalence of the institutions they work so hard to please.

The Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop, PhD is a theologian, minister and author of Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports   Marcia and her family have been involved in football in the NFL and at Division I collegiate levels for over two decades. She is also a middle school cross country and track coach in West Lafayette, IN.