Katz Lecture Panelists Discuss Brain Injuries and the Ethics of Fandom

Lawrence Katz  Lecture panelists (left to right) Steve Almond, Hon. Ed Rendell, Libby Nichols, Ryan Long and Bobbie Williams.

Lawrence Katz Lecture panelists (left to right) Steve Almond, Hon. Ed Rendell, Libby Nichols, Ryan Long and Bobbie Williams.

Given the risk of brain injuries for athletes in certain sports, a diverse group of panelists and audience members at Philadelphia University last night addressed this central question:

Is it ethical to be a sports fan?

New York Times’ best-selling author Steve Almond doesn’t think so, and he’s gone so far as to stop watching football altogether.

“It’s a kind of murder ballet,” said Almond, echoing the sentiments in his book “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.”

Almond’s main concern is the increasing evidence that athletes in certain contact sports are experiencing traumatic brain injuries at a significant rate. “It’s a physics problem,” Almond said. “You can’t undo mass times acceleration equals force. When players are bigger and stronger and faster than they’ve ever been, and they’re crashing into each other a thousand times, there are a thousand small car accidents inside that helmet that we never see.”

The very topical issue was tackled Nov. 4 at the Lawrence Katz Memorial Lecture, “Traumatic Brain Injuries and the Ethics of Being a Sports Fan,” presented by the Arlen Specter Center for Public Service.

The panel was moderated by Ryan Long, PhilaU assistant professor of ethics and philosophy, who admitted upfront his role as a one-share owner of the Green Bay Packers. Despite his love of the game, he acknowledged that football “is a collision sport.”

In the Kanbar Campus Center, former Pennsylvania governor and avid sports fan Edward G. Rendell was quick to disagree with Almond’s tough stance, saying that while health risks to players do need to be addressed, turning off the television during Monday Night Football is extreme.

Attendees were polled on their views on sports in which players risk brain trauma.

Attendees were polled on their views on sports in which players risk brain trauma.

“If we want to give people max protection, we’ll ban boxing, we’ll ban smoking, we’ll ban motorcycle riding,” said Rendell, who is co-host of Comcast SportsNet’s Eagles Post Game Live. “What we need to do as a society is educate, regulate and then let the people decide.”

Or the courts. This spring, a federal judge in Philadelphia approved a settlement that calls for the NFL to pay up to $5 million to potentially thousands of former players who may suffer from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia at some point. Judge Anita Brody refused to cap the overall amount the NFL could pay, which some estimate could total as much as $1 billion.

At issue is brain damage resulting from repeated blows to the head, concussions and other brain injuries that result in the chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. One prominent example is Junior Seau, the pro-Bowler who killed himself in 2012 after years of erratic behavior; an autopsy showed he suffered from CTE.

More education on the risks of the game might have benefitted Bobbie Williams, a former NFL guard and 2013 Super Bowl champion with the Baltimore Ravens, who says he was aware of the hazards only “to a certain degree.”

“There’s a certain added pressure that guys face to be out there on the field,” Williams said of the tendency of players to keep playing despite injuries. “They’ll do anything and take anything just to get through the day, let alone the game.”

During his 13 years in the league, Williams said there were a few measures taken to improve the safety of players. “They reduced the number of practices because a lot of injuries occur in practice,” he said. “You’re pushed full speed in practice to the point that Sundays are a relief.”

Yet, even given what he knows today about the effect of repeated blows to the head, Williams said of his career, “I would do it again.”

Although football, given its popularity and dominant place in American culture, was the most-discussed sport at the lecture, it is certainly not the only one that puts players at risk for brain trauma.

Panelist Libby Nichols ’14, currently a medical student at the University of Maryland, was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to conduct a 10-month study in Munich on the cognitive effects of heading the ball in soccer players ages 14 to 16.

She counted the number of headers for each player throughout the season, who were each given a pre-neurological exam and a post-neurological exam. Preliminary findings showed that the players with more headers performed less well on the cognitive exam than the control group. “The players with more headers had a slight decline,” she said, while the others improved.

At the same time, Nichols, a competitive athlete who was a star lacrosse midfielder at PhilaU, said, “there are so many good aspects of being an athlete. It’s a trickier topic than just shutting it down.”

Before the lecture began, attendees were asked, using Poll Everywhere technology, whether it is ethical to be a fan considering the risk of traumatic brain injuries in athletes. For that initial poll, 17 people said yes, three said no, seven were undecided and nine said they needed more information.

After the lecture, attendees were polled on whether their views had changed: 28 voted yes and 24 voted no.

One student said he had initially voted that it was ethical to watch certain sports, but changed his mind after hearing the panel. “They’re treating these players as a product,” he said.

Adjunct faculty member Timothy Welbeck, who teaches a course on the African American experience, acknowledged that sports can be a “great equalizer of opportunity” for minority students because it carries fewer of the structural imbalances of the greater society. At the same time, he said, “it would be better to invest in communities and provide meaningful opportunities” for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Alfonso Mayers, a PhilaU information resources specialist, also was one of the 28 people whose view had changed during the animated discussion. “I didn’t think there was a correlation between being a fan and being a player in the game, but I changed my mind and realized we should really think about why we’re watching these sports,” he said.

Almond, who took the strongest position against sports in which players can suffer head trauma, said he hoped the discussion raised issues that would leave people “in a state of moral struggle.”

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