TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Harvard And Yale Should Stop Playing Football

Harvard YaleChicago Tribune, Harvard and Yale Should Stop Playing Football:

Harvard and Yale are among the premier educational institutions in the world. They have spent centuries at the task of strengthening and elevating young minds. But on Saturday, Nov. 18, they ... [joined] together in a ritual guaranteed to damage young brains: the Harvard-Yale football game.

The two universities have been meeting on the gridiron since 1875, in one of the oldest rivalries in college sports. The tradition even inspired an acclaimed documentary film about the 1968 game, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.

Ivy League football is no longer a big deal on the intercollegiate sports scene, which is dominated by large public universities such as Ohio State and Alabama. But Harvard (my alma mater) and Yale continue to send out undergraduate students to represent them in varsity football, oblivious to growing evidence that it does grave and irreversible harm to mental functioning.

At this point, a heavy burden of proof lies on those defending the game. A study of the brains of 202 deceased football players by neurologists at Boston University found markers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 99 percent of NFL veterans and 91 percent of those who played only through college. CTE is an incurable terminal disease that, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, causes “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and eventually progressive dementia.” ...

How can these two institutions rationalize a pastime so antithetical to the well-being of undergraduates and their own educational missions? It’s the equivalent of the Mayo Clinic operating a tobacco shop on-site. While athletics may be a worthwhile part of a well-rounded life, any sport practically designed to impair mental functioning can’t be justified as a university endeavor. ...

Harvard and Yale, of course, are just two of the hundreds of colleges that have varsity football teams. Why should they be singled out for doing what so many are doing?

One reason is that elite educational institutions have large responsibilities. Universities that are academic leaders have no business pretending there is no problem or waiting for others to act.

Their stature also gives them outsize influence. If Yale’s Peter Salovey and Harvard’s Drew Gilpin Faust were to move to abandon the sport for reasons of health and safety, administrators at other colleges would be confronted with the question in a way they could not avoid.

With every game, Yale and Harvard are knowingly exposing their young charges to the serious risk of permanent incapacitating neurological injuries. How many students’ brains have to be wrecked before they decide to stop?

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They are both hedge funds with colleges ... on the side.

Posted by: Jim | Dec 2, 2017 2:56:58 AM

The 202 deceased football players whose brains were examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy were not a random sample. They were persons who were thought to have suffered from the condition before they died. In other words, the sample was extremely heavily biased to show the condition. Logically the actual incidence of the condition, as a percentage of all football players, is far rarer; how much rarer, this study doesn't show.

Posted by: tom sample | Dec 2, 2017 4:32:13 AM

Unless the head-injury problem is solved, American-style football is doomed. I can't imagine what kind of parents would permit or encourage their son to play football at this time.

Posted by: Publius Novus | Dec 2, 2017 5:31:50 AM

Of course football is also the largest team sport in the Ivies where non-wealthy students might realistically be recruited. Take it away, and the 99% are left trying to compete for precious admissions slots with the Exeter/Andover/St. Grottlesex students in crew, squash, golf, sailing, etc. And let's get real: per Deresiewicz, just 100 of the nation's >37,000 high schools still provide HYP with nearly 1 in 4 undergrads. 94 of those 100 high schools are private. And football is very likely one of the more egalitarian modes of entry into those schools.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Dec 2, 2017 7:36:05 AM

To see what educators really believe, watch whether they shut down a winning program like Stanford's.

Posted by: AMTbuff | Dec 2, 2017 10:42:34 AM

Of course, sports are really "intramural" in the Ivy League. There are no athletic scholarships in the Ivy League. There is often a rare occurrence of a talent that finds its way to a professional sport. The admiration for the “renaissance man” that these schools sought to produce has most certainly been lost in recent times. The elimination, except to the degree it is a focal point for student school spirit, would be a mere whisper.

The influence of these schools on Power Five athletics, however, is overblown by Mr. Chapman. The love of “the game” (and, I promise you that only playing for scholarship or money is insufficient motivation), the opportunities provided, the lessons learned and skills developed will be preserved. Also, virtually every Title IX program in the country is funded, including other men’s sports, by football revenue in Division I and II.

It is simply foolish to believe these athletes do not engage in the felicific calculus between the health trade-offs and their participation.

Posted by: Tom N | Dec 2, 2017 7:58:14 PM

"The admiration for the “renaissance man” that these schools sought to produce has most certainly been lost in recent times. "

Yeah, one sure pines for the good old days when, for instance, nearly 1/3 of Princeton students were supplied by Lawrenceville, the preside of Yale gave an infamous interview lambasting "grade-grubbers" while extolling the virtues of the underachieving heirs whose fortunes will allow them to exert influence, and Harvard's admissions divided the country in 22 geographic regions that did not compete for slots against one another: while the entire Rocky Mountain time zone was allotted one docket, New England prep schools were given three dockets.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Dec 2, 2017 10:33:23 PM