Bread and Circus (and Concussions)

The biggest sports story out of Texas this past week was the Super Bowl, but the runner-up came just down the road from Cowboys Stadium, the $1.2 billion “palace” that hosted the national pastime’s grand finale.  In the town of Allen, home to about 85,000, construction is moving ahead for another shrine to excess.

Allen’s $60 million football stadium will seat 18,000 in a sunken bowl design to maximize sightlines.  The venue will also feature a two-tier press box, high-definition video scoreboard, practice rooms for wrestling and golf, weight room, and spacious parking lot.  Who will call this state of the art facility home?  Allen High School.

The town’s football-fanatic residents, some of whom have been season ticket holders for decades, are proud that theirs will be the most expensive high school football stadium ever built.  Sixty-three percent of them voted to approve a $119 million bond for the recapitalization project, which also includes performing arts and administrative service centers.  “When they say football is like religion in Texas, it’s true,” Anthony Gibson, Allen’s fine arts director, told the New York Times.

Is there anything wrong with Allen’s sports Mecca?  Not necessarily.  But it raises questions of misplaced priorities when budget woes are forcing education cuts nationwide, including in Texas, where lawmakers are contemplating slashing school funding by $10 billion.  One wonders, is education, and not just football, a religion in the Lone Star State?  (Sam Johnson, a conservative Republican, has long represented the congressional district that includes Allen.  Permitting school prayer and abolishing the Department of Education are among his “religious” passions—and presumably football, too).

To its credit, Allen High School is renowned for its academics in addition to its whiz-bang football team.  Moreover, the town’s investment in a super stadium is not a story of money from sports perverting a school’s pedagogical mission, unlike the college ranks, which are home to professional leagues masquerading as amateur athletics.  Nevertheless, Allen’s decision is disturbing because football is disturbing—disturbingly dangerous.

The sport’s brutality is the subject of periodic scrutiny.  In 1905, 18 football players died from on-field injuries, prompting calls to ban the game outright.  President Teddy Roosevelt, in a bid to save the sport, summoned college coaches to the White House to discuss ways to enhance player safety.  The forward pass came into being the next year.

Over the decades, improvements in equipment and additional rule changes have supposedly made football less dangerous.  But as former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Dave Pear tells Ben McGrath of the New Yorker, “Now it’s not an instant death.  Now it’s a slow death.”  The latest evidence suggests that Pear is not exaggerating.

Studies over the last few years have shed light on the game’s toll, particularly on the brain.  Autopsies on a number of former NFL players have revealed extensive damage to neural fibers caused by multiple head traumas, a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  Symptoms of CTE include depression, memory loss, and dementia.  The brain of one former player who committed suicide at age 44 was said to resemble an 85 year-old man with Alzheimer’s.

Signs of early onset CTE have also turned up in deceased college players, which is not surprising given that younger athletes are particularly susceptible to head traumas, since their brains are still developing.  Indeed, the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study estimates the incidence of concussions among high school football players to be nine percent, though many believe that number is much higher because many concussions go unreported.

What does all of this have to do with Allen’s new stadium?

Football’s allure is intrinsically tied to its violence.  Bone-crushing hits are celebrated, as are the gladiators who mete them out.  Then there’s the martial terminology: “bombs” and “blitzes” and linemen in the “trenches.”  F-15s even make flyovers at big games.  That adults choose to make careers in a hazardous profession that seeks to approximate combat is their prerogative, but what about adolescents?  Do we really want to permit, much less encourage, a sport that, according to Purdue researchers, exposes young players to the equivalent of 1,500 low-speed rear-end car crashes each season?

Allen answers that question definitively.  The town’s new $60 million arena makes clear that its residents mind little whether their children are irreparably damaging their own minds for gridiron glory.  Football in these parts, after all, is a religion.

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