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Football and head injuries: North Carolina coach unfairly criticized for observations

I had the day off Wednesday, and I’m thankful for at least two reasons. 

One, I got to spend the day with my 2-year-old. As they say, those are days we never get back. 

Two, I missed the hysteria over what Larry Fedora said about football and head injuries, although from what I can tell the quality of discussion in my house and online was probably about the same. 

In case you missed it, the North Carolina football coach made headlines by disputing the conclusion football and a degenerative brain disease (CTE) are inseparable. 

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He also suggested losing football (as in if it becomes drastically different from the game we see today) could hurt American culture and even the military. 

>>ASSOCIATED PRESS: North Carolina coach causes stir with CTE comment

I happen to agree with the cultural part, though that’s an opinion anyone is welcome not to share. Every sport teaches life lessons, but I truly believe football does it best — in no small part because of the combination of strategy and physicality that’s not matched in any other game. 

As far as football and brain injuries, Fedora was generally correct but made the mistake of expressing himself in a world in which nuance is dead and would not be welcome if it were still alive anyway.  

“I don’t think that the game of football, that it’s been proven that the game of football causes CTE,” Fedora said. “But that’s been put out there. We don’t really know yet.

“Are there the chances for concussions in the game of football? Yeah, we all have common sense, right? Yeah, there are. When you have two people running into each other or multiple people running into each other, there is a chance of a concussion. But again, I’m going to say, the game is safer than it’s ever been in the history of the game.”

These are valid statements. 

A highly publicized study from Boston University found nearly all of the brains of former football players they studied had CTE, but their sample size is small and extremely limited. They only studied people who had symptoms of neurological disorders so they can’t represent the “average” person or former football player, but that isn’t how their results are generally presented in media reports. 

(This is where the sense “football is under attack” comes from, by the way.)

The only thing the study can really confirm is that the brains of people they have studied, who are unlike the vast majority of the population including millions of former football players who don’t exhibit these symptoms, share certain physical characteristics that can be caused by any number of events and might exist in people whose behavior is perfectly “normal.” (The latter’s brains aren’t usually studied.) 

It’s a valuable data point, and the NFL screwed itself in the court of public opinion by trying to obscure such information for years, but it is also not very valuable for drawing any sort of broad conclusion about the safety of the game. 

That’s especially true if you, like Fedora and almost everyone who ever played football plus I’m sure the majority of fans, already undersood football is dangerous. 

“Are there still injuries? Yeah. It's a violent sport. You've got big, fast, strong guys running into each other. Something is going to give. But there are risks involved in the game, and everybody that plays the game understands those risks. It's not like they're going into it not knowing that something could happen. And so they have to -- personally have to weigh those risks versus the rewards.

“But I believe, there's no doubt in my mind, the changes that we're making year to year for the health and safety of our players, the game is safer than it's ever been in the history of the game.”

I wanted to defend Fedora, but it’s obvious from the reaction online few are interested in hearing it so I figured I would find something better to do with my time than shout into the wind. 

Then I found this story from Yahoo! Sports that does a fantastic job laying out the case for Fedora so I thought it was worth sharing in hopes of improving future conversations about this topic. 

The latter probably won’t happen, but I know there are plenty of parents out there who aren’t sure what to tell their kids who want to play football, so it’s worth sharing if it will help them be more informed. 

Writes Yahoo’s Eric Adelson: 

The problem is that the media at large has made conclusions that science has not. It’s assumed that football causes CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and CTE causes terrible later-life symptoms when, in fact, CTE still cannot be confirmed except through autopsy and scientists are not yet at the stage when they can state CTE’s effects as fact. This is what Fedora tried to convey, albeit inarticulately.

He quotes an expert to back him up. 

“I totally agree with (Fedora),” says Peter Cummings, a neuropathologist and associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine. “Association is not causation. CTE has also been found in individuals not exposed to contact sports. It’s not a settled matter by any means. And football is safer today than it has ever been. In fact, I would argue that no other sport has made a more radical transformation in response to safety concerns than football. His comments reflect the reality of the scientific uncertainty surrounding CTE.”

He also quotes a research article from two Canadian scientists that warns of jumping to conclusions based on research of CTE and mild traumatic brain injuries being “in its infancy” and relying on biased data pools in most (if not all) cases.  

The exaggerated assumptions and assertions taken from these studies run the risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for individuals who believe they are at risk and have the potential to negatively influence sports-related policymaking. 

What does “negatively influenced sports-related policymaking” look like?

The well-intended but badly deployed targeting rule in college football is probably the best example, but the NFL is threatening to take it to the next level by outlawing “lowering the head to initiate contact.” 

There are also multiple states considering banning youth football

While we wait to see how that plays out, I encourage everyone to do their own research, come to their own conclusions and make whatever decisions as necessary. 

As for Fedora, I think he made some good points, but he also overstated his position. 

Unfortunately for him, only the people on the other side of the football safety “debate” are allowed to do that. 

  

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