Is Football More Important Than Boxing, Bear-Baiting, Smoking, or Drinking?

by Neil H. Buchanan

On the op-ed page of yesterday's New York Times, a medical pathologist named Bennet Omalu makes an interesting case for a bold proposition: children should not be allowed to play football (or ice hockey, or to participate in mixed martial arts or boxing).  Omalu lays out the growing body of medical evidence showing that participation in contact sports causes serious damage to the developing brains of children, making it clear that the stakes for his proposal could not be higher.  Although even Omalu surely cannot imagine that the U.S. will suddenly wake up tomorrow and ban these youth sports, his proposal raises some interesting questions.

Omalu first makes it clear that this is not merely a matter of "letting kids have fun."  Kids can have fun doing a lot of things (or think that they will), yet we sensibly say that those activities are out of bounds.  He specifically mentions drinking alcohol, joining the military, voting, smoking, driving; and consenting to have sex.  We also stop children from playing with matches and explosives -- and even our horribly lax gun laws include limits on children's use.  There are good reasons that adults should be allowed to make self-damaging choices, but children should not.

Omalu then argues convincingly that these are not decisions that adults should be allowed to make on behalf of children.  Although he does not use this analogy, we have long relied on movie ratings to separate movies that no child can see, as opposed to those that the child can see if accompanied by an adult or guardian.  Similarly, marriage laws often provide limited exceptions to minimum age requirements if the parents approve, but even parental approval cannot reduce the age of marriage below some minimum.

Regarding playing violent sports, Omalu argues: "We should at least wait for our children to grow up, be provided with the information and education on the risk of play, and let them make their own decisions. No adult, not a parent or a coach, should be allowed to make this potentially life-altering decision for a child."  In other words, just as we do not allow parents to sell their children into slavery or to work in factories with adult approval, when it comes to the possibility of permanently damaging a person's brain, that person is the only being with the moral standing to make such a life-altering decision.

Although I find this argument both convincing and provocative, I have no illusions that it will suddenly carry the day.  It does, however, raise at least two interesting thoughts.  The first is entirely a matter of conjecture about how a well designed ban would affect people's behavior, while the second asks whether Omalu's call might ultimately carry the day, as the evidence of sports-related brain damage becomes more and more difficult to ignore.

Suppose that all relevant legal bodies were to adopt effective rules immediately banning children from participating in any of these sports.  Omalu points out that the "[t]he human brain becomes fully developed at about 18 to 25 years old," so let us imagine that the new rules set a minimum age of participation of 25.  For present purposes, the specific number does not matter, but it is at least fun to note that a rule at the higher end of the range would either eliminate college football and ice hockey entirely, or at least force colleges to recruit adult men who had not yet gone to college to play for Big State U.  (And the Friday Night Lights of high school football would be forever darkened.)

In any case, suppose further that the sudden social consensus that leads to the adoption of these new child-protection laws somehow leaves the public's thirst for violent entertainment unchanged, so that there will still be plenty of money to be made by the NFL, NHL, MMA, and so on.  If all parties were truly willing to honor Omalu's moral call to protect children, what would this new world look like?

We might try to imagine how an ambitious, athletically talented child (and her or his parents) would try to prepare for a future in a sport that the child cannot actually play.  Flag football and other non-contact alternatives might arise.  Certainly, there would still be incentives to engage in other forms of child abuse, such as human growth hormone and steroid usage.  But beyond that quasi-cheating, one could imagine this new world being one in which people eagerly anticipate the day that a young adult will be able to consent to taking blows to the head, and the child tries to do everything possible to be ready to play with the adults.  The "metrics" mavens who have come to dominate sports analysis would quickly figure out ways to determine which basketball or baseball skills best predict football success, for example.

More interestingly, and directly in response to the question raised in the title of this post, "Is Football More Important Than Boxing, Bear-Baiting, Smoking, or Drinking?" it is interesting to think about whether society will begin to lose interest in football as more and more evidence accumulates about the mental and physical toll that the game takes on young bodies.  We are not going to ban football for young people tomorrow, but will it have lost much of its appeal in ten, twenty, or fifty years, as some analysts have argued?

As many others have noted, the best analogy for this scenario is boxing, which was within my lifetime still one of the most widely followed sports in the world.  Growing disgust with the inherent violence of boxing soon combined with the chaotic mismanagement of the sport to create a new reality in which, although boxing still exists (and big fights like Pacquiao vs. Mayweather can still generate a payday), it is a shadow of its former self.  Certainly, no one would be surprised to hear a sports fan say, "I love baseball, football, and basketball, but I won't watch boxing."  That once would have been unfathomable.

A big turning point, I think, came when Muhammed Ali made his first appearances in public after being overcome by Parkinson's syndrome (related to head trauma) in 1984.  Obviously "punch-drunk," the man whose entire public persona was defined by his razor-sharp mind and even sharper tongue had become a mumbling, confused middle-aged man.  It was not just terribly sad, but shocking even to people who were not really surprised by the medical facts.

The point is that social attitudes can change, and they can change very quickly.  Bear-baiting was once a popular spectator event, but it is now long gone (thankfully).  Even for non-spectator-related consumption, people's attitudes can change surprisingly quickly.  Starting in the the late 1980's, changes in social attitudes regarding cigarette smoking were amazingly rapid, such that New York City's once-unthinkable ban on smoking in bars and restaurants spread within less than two decades not just to almost all major cities in the U.S. but to global capitals like London and Paris.  (Paris!)

Similarly, although people still drink alcoholic beverages in large amounts, public attitudes changed with stunning speed on two fronts.  In less than ten years in the 1980's, drunk driving went from being a nod-and-wink punchline in mainstream entertainment (and in conversations among bar patrons) to being socially unacceptable in the extreme.  And even though there is still much more drinking going on than is healthy (to say the least), one need only have watched the first part of Ken Burns's three-part documentary about Prohibition, which was titled "A Nation of Drunkards," to know that our attitudes toward drinking have led to a dramatic reduction in levels of public drunkenness.

If people are capable of moving very quickly even on matters of personal satisfaction (and addiction), does that mean that they could similarly change their minds (without making a conscious decision) in a relatively short time regarding concussion-inducing sports?  No one knows the answer to that question, of course, but op-eds like the one discussed above might at least move us in that direction.