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Mary Wentworth: Unringing the football bell

Concussion is the football injury that has received the most attention even though the whole body gets beaten up — lungs, kidneys, joints, spines, foreheads, legs, even the feet.

Coaches now have guidelines on how to treat a player who has “had his bell rung.” In this fall’s Panthers/Patriots game, a fleeting off-the-field shot showed a team doctor moving a raised index finger back and forth in front of a player’s eyes in order to determine, one might suppose, whether he could go back in.

On Oct. 8, Frontline, a PBS program, explored this topic in “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Problem.” The documentary chronicled the struggle between doctors, former players and their families to get NFL commissioners, wealthy team owners and their doctors to acknowledge that there is such a problem.

This medical condition now has a name — Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy — and, thanks to the testimony of wives and widows, symptoms of CTE have been identified: anger, violent behavior, confusion, memory loss, disorientation, insomnia, depression and dementia.

The NFL, pursuing the “admit nothing” strategy of tobacco execs, said that there could be other causes — genetics, for example, or alcohol abuse — that produced these symptoms. In 2007, the NFL began handing teams pamphlets telling them that football is “safe.”

In 2010, a Boston University neuropathologist, Dr. Ann McKee, began autopsying the brains of former players. She found 64 out of 66 had CTE. Neuropathologists went on to find that high-school players and those even younger are especially prone to this condition. It makes sense, doesn’t it, that if babies can be severely injured from being shaken so can 9-year-olds or 17-year-olds or 30-year-olds when they have been thrown to the ground or struck on the side of the head again and again?

This year, 4,500 retired NFL players filed a $2 billion lawsuit charging that the NFL had fraudulently concealed the dangers of playing football. In settling the suit for $765 million, the NFL admitted nothing. After all, if the dangers of playing this game were eliminated, what would be left?

It is remarkable, then, that as the game’s dangers have been exposed, the administration at the University of Massachusetts and its board of trustees saw fit not to dismantle the university’s football program but to ramp it up.

Do they dream of occupying a Gillette Stadium box á la Robert Kraft while the Minutemen play a Mid-American Conference powerhouse, cheered on by a sell-out crowd of university alums?

One might ask how much progress has been made since the Coliseum days of ancient Rome as player after player limps off the field or is wheeled off on a gurney. Evidence of our culture of violence is demonstrated by the cheers that are comparable to those for a touchdown when an opponent is taken down with an extra-hard slam to the turf.

The university is a land grant public school of higher education whose mission is “to provide an affordable education of high quality and conduct programs of research and public service that advance our knowledge and improve the lives of the people of the Commonwealth.” This job description does not include participating in a farm system that along with high school programs subsidize the ultra-profitable NFL at the expense and well-being of our young.

There’s another reason to dump this sport: its cost.

Derrick Jackson, in a June 1 Globe column, quoted the Delta Cost Project: “Not only does athletic spending per athlete far exceed academic spending per student, it is also growing about twice as fast. Disparities in academic and athletic spending suggest that participating public colleges and universities re-examine their game plans.”

As questions mount about Charlie Molnar’s toughening-up coaching techniques and UMass defeats, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy pleads for patience in an Oct. 18 interview on NPR: “I think it’s on course, so let’s, you know, put the doubters to a test five years from now.”

Meanwhile, more kids will have their bells rung.

Mary L. Wentworth is a writer who lives in Amherst.

Legacy Comments1

Real leadership for UMass Amherst would get the University out of the football business altogether, and as rapidly as possible. Yes, I love the stirring Minuteman marching band and the pageantry. Now we have medical proof, however, that playing football damages the very brains needed for a university education. Collegiate football also costs large sums meant to provide that education. In the case of UMass Amherst, these are Massachusetts taxpayers' dollars. How can Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy defend its continuance?

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