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The College Football Report: Dementia Pugilistica

As viewers and fans of an inherently violent game, at what point are we morally obligated to object, to stop watching, to stop buying merchandise and to demand that the officials (administrators, coaches, athletic directors) make changes to the game to protect the players?

While not always stated as directly, the damage done by playing football on players has been the topic of discussion for several weeks. For example, Michael Sokolove authored an opinion piece for the New York Times' "Week In Review" section (from Sunday, October 24) titled "Should You Watch Football?" about the quandary of watching - and being entertained by - a game "whose level of violence is demonstrably destructive". (Sokolove's opinion seems to be "it depends".)

Much of the hand-wringing results from a weekend of nasty injuries in college and pro football. Last Saturday, Rutgers University defensive tackle Eric LeGrand suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury during a kickoff return against Army. As of this writing, LeGrand remains paralyzed.

The following day, several NFL players suffered concussions from brutal hits to the head. Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson's hit on Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson exemplified the problem: defensive players leading with the head and shoulders on tackles against vulnerable skill position (mostly receivers, backs, QBs) players. (We caution those with queasy stomachs against watching the clip.)

The issue of violence, injuries and permanent damage is not new to football. It's not limited to the pro or college game. Commentators last weekend rightly noted that defensive players, beginning at a young age in leagues like Pop Warner, are all taught to tackle the same way. Further, the media - most explicitly in segments such as ESPN's "Jacked Up!" - fans and players celebrate violent hits. While few (if any) would cheer for injuries, most football fans relish hard hits that jar the ball loose, break up a play by the offense, or knock an opposing quarterback out of the game for a time.

New research has shown that the accumulation of hard hits to the head - even without any evidence of concussions or other trauma - can accrue, at least in some cases, and result in lasting damage. Earlier this season, the case of Penn co-captain Owen Thomas created a stir in the community as one of the youngest football players ever documented with an incidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative condition stemming from brain injury. Thomas had no history of mental illness nor had he shown any signs of depression. After being named Second Team in the conference in 2009 he was named as a co-captain for the 2010 season. He committed suicide in his apartment on April 26, 2010.

CTE can result in behaviors similar to Alzheimer's disease - changes to mood, disorientation, poor impulse control, and so on. For those who find this hard to believe, consider the original medical term for CTE: "dementia pugilistica" - punch drunk.

For our part, we would like to see stronger regulations - not necessarily changes to rules and penalties, although some improvements could be made in those areas as well - in place, mostly regarding the equipment required at all levels of the sport.

Beyond the breaks, fractures, tears and bruises we have come to expect every week while watching football, at what point should we demand better treatment for the thousands of players who take the field - at least in part - for our entertainment?

For this weekend, let's watch the sport we love with some thought to the price we ask the players to pay and at least a bit more consideration of the power that we, as fans, wield over the NCAA and other officials who administer the game.

Come back next weekend for a further discussion of the College Football Report's recommendations, but for now here's what you came for . . . the picks:

The Sports Seal (floundering, blubbering, barking mournfully):

UAB @ Southern Miss (-10, 11AM Saturday)
Tulsa @ Notre Dame (-8.5, 1:30PM Saturday)
Miami, Ohio (-2.5) @ Buffalo (2:30PM Saturday)

And those of the College Football Report (it's getting ugly around here, folks):

#5 Michigan State (+6.5) @ #18 Iowa (2:30PM Saturday)*
#1 Auburn (-7) @ Ole Miss (5:00PM Saturday)

*As we always say, buy the hook. Even in "for entertainment purposes only" situations.


Mike Luce and the Beachwood Sports Seal bring you The College Football Report every week. They welcome your comments.

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