Lee Bowie on Head Trauma in Football Players

A thought-provoking article by Malcolm Gladwell in the October 19, 2009, New Yorker magazine recapped the evidence regarding long-term neurological disorders and head trauma, and even suggested a parallel between football and dog fighting. Questioning Authority asked football aficionado Lee Bowie, professor and chair of philosophy, for his thoughts on the subject.

QA: Is football more like boxing or more like NASCAR?

LB: Sadly it’s not really like either, since I like to watch football. This research is like your first time watching an action film with a thoughtful feminist. It makes it hard ever again to take the same innocent pleasure in it. I think it’s more like NASCAR in that the NFL is trying very hard to protect players. But it’s not working and there may be no way to make it work short of changing the rules to eliminate significant contact to the head.

QA: Is it likely that the NFL will pay attention to this issue and impose new regulations to make the game a bit safer?

LB: The NFL is already paying attention--there have already been rule changes (no wedges on kickoffs, no helmet-to-helmet hits, no hands to the head), and changes in helmet design, but they are not enough to prevent repetitive traumatic brain injury. The laws of physics constrain how much technology can mitigate the forces at play in high-speed collisions.

QA: Does the NFL owe these players an obligation to keep them safe, or is it simply a matter of the players' choice to take the risk?

LB: Some say that the players make so much money that they’re well compensated for the risks they take. But when the injuries look less like occasional accidents and more like an essential part of the game, it starts to look like paying gladiators for being eaten by the lions.

QA: Will this new information have an impact on football in secondary schools? How about college ball?

LB: I sure hope so. Within the past year an 18-year-old athlete was autopsied and showed clear signs of repetitive traumatic brain injury. For every NFL player there are thousands of kids playing football, and they are all at risk.

QA: Will you stop watching football?

LB: That’s the toughest question. My pleasure in the game is gained at the cost of the exploitation of players’ health. For the moment I’m making sure I don’t buy NFL goods or otherwise support the NFL financially. But I’m not sure how long I can believe that’s a tenable position. In the meantime I’m praying for the helmet designers to come up quickly with a major breakthrough and save both players and fans.

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