Time to give up football

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Whatever happens with COVID-19 and big-time college sports, it’s time for Stanford to stop playing football. The sport is unsafe at any speed. As someone who got season tickets when I arrived on campus in 1986, as someone who even took a road trip that year to see an upset win over perennial powerhouse UCLA, I will plead guilty at the outset to the charge of hypocrisy. The charge doubly sticks because I have attended the games when I have returned for five-year reunions.

But sometimes an uneasy feeling gives way to an honest admission about what you have known all along. Even if one is not prepared to condemn others for playing and supporting football, we can at least say that it is the wrong choice for Stanford. Much like how the scientific debate about whether second-hand smoke is harmful was settled with more research, so too has the science come into sharper focus about the harms of playing football.

The NFL is the successor-in-interest to the malign, anti-science marketing strategies employed by the tobacco industry. Yet it has finally acknowledged the inherent risks of playing football. The existence of concussion protocols and rules limiting tackling in practice concede the point. With this public acknowledgement and shift in rules, none of us can now deny the obvious: Football is a gladiator sport where bodies and brains are sacrificed for our entertainment.

We now know that it is dangerous to the brain — not just in the NFL, not just when an opposing player makes a dirty hit and not just when a player suffers a concussion. Rather, it is dangerous when it is played within the rules and in its usual fashion. We have all heard about the autopsies of former football players with brains rife with CTE. We have heard the horror stories about middle-aged men, and even men in their twenties and thirties, suffering from the symptoms of senility. We have heard of the agony of former players driven to drug use and suicide to escape the harms that stem from the game they once played for fun.

The science has made it clear that the cumulative harm to the brain from playing football comes from hundreds of sub-concussive impacts when linemen go head-to-head, play after play, over the course of the season at the youth, high school and college levels.  There is no quick fix; football cannot be bettered with improved tackling techniques or by similar fixes that tinker away at the edges of a fundamentally violent sport. 

It is important to acknowledge, as the game’s defenders are quick to point out, that football is a voluntary activity. U.S. senator and 2020 presidential candidate Cory Booker, who played for Stanford while I attended, is on record about his positive experience. After you add in Andrew Luck, John Elway, Christian McCaffrey and other players who have used Stanford football as a springboard to successful careers in the NFL and beyond, there are plenty of people who happily played football and who would do it all over again if the hands of time permitted a do-over.

The game’s effects, however, go far beyond the 22 who line up on the field on any given play. College football takes place not on sandlots but in massive stadiums built for spectators and TV cameras. It is a big-time business that serves as a minor league for the NFL, and as an incentive for kids in elementary and secondary schools to take up the game. It affects the funding of every other sport on campus, and it, along with the other varsity sports, affects the admissions process that affects the tens of thousands who apply every year.

Experience has also shown that the economics of running a D1 football program leads to an inexorable temptation to cut corners. That has meant the admission of unqualified students, under-the-table payments from boosters and cheating on the grades of student-athletes so they can maintain eligibility. I should hasten to say that I am unaware of any such lapses at Stanford, but I wonder how long we can sustain the high-wire act of running a perfectly ethical football program while resisting at every turn the temptations that might deliver a national title so eagerly awaited by an increasingly wealthy alumni base.

We should quit before the scent of scandal wafts down the grand entrance of Palm Drive. The chances of this, I am afraid, seem dim. Stanford has, if anything, doubled down on college football since the time I bought those season tickets. Back then, scalpers haplessly tried to hawk handfuls of tickets minutes before the game, and the old stadium was a place for alums to consume wine and cheese while half paying attention to the contest. When I have come back to campus for my reunions, the student body is invested in a way we never were. After Jim Harbaugh made good on his promise to “build a bully,” Stanford has gone from also-ran to perennial contender. We may not have succumbed to the monomania that accompanies some of the biggest and most passionate fan bases, but we are all in on football, and one worries that such a commitment comes with a risk of scandal.

Stanford students have never shied away from asking hard questions. While college football may not have the same import as the Vietnam War, apartheid, income inequality, climate change or racial inequality, asking the question of whether we should continue to support Stanford football requires us to look at our own behavior. Students and alumni contribute to a sport that damages the brains of classmates. What could diverge more from the mission of an educational institution than an activity that damages the capacity of students to learn and discover new knowledge?

Stanford is one of the world’s great universities whether or not it is successful in football, or, for that matter, any other sport. We do not depend on success on the gridiron to bring renown to our school. Football is a choice for the University, not a necessity. If Stanford were to capture a national title, it would increase incrementally and temporarily the attention and money flowing to our university. But what if Stanford were to give up a ranked football program for the good of its students, for the good of higher education as a whole, for the good of society? Would that not be a unique act of leadership?

If we decided to forego the enjoyment of our gladiator sport, would that not be an example to youth sports programs and high schools who already have misgivings about football? As it stands, Stanford follows the crowd when it comes to football. What if we were bold leaders the way we are in so many other fields? What if we disappointed a devoted fan base because it was the right thing to do? What if Stanford was the first and not the last university to abandon football? Would not your esteem for the institution grow greater still?

—Alex J. Grant, B.A. International Relations ’90

Contact Alex Grant at alex.grant68 ‘at’ yahoo.com.

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