In 1982, the physician Robert Goldman began a decade-long study that involved asking elite athletes if they would take a pill that would: A., get them an Olympic gold medal but would, B., kill them after five years. Half the athletes Goldman queried said they would go for gold and fame and fortune and early death.
Goldman's study had some methodological problems, but it gained credibility as the '80s dragged on. Goldman's question ceased to be hypothetical as athletes in dozens of sports began routinely using anabolic steroids. Steroid abuse took on the character of an arms race. If you weren't juicing, you'd lose your place on the team to someone who was. Steroids would help you win, but they'd also clog your cardiovascular system and you would die early.
Goldman's Dilemma, as it has come to be called, has been on my mind this week after a bunch more college football players have had season-ending injuries. Juicing is less prevalent than it was in the '80s—we're seeing fewer prognathous jaws and 'roid rage in college classrooms—but it still looks as if conference championships come with a side of pathology. The game itself is becoming less of an arms race than an escalating war, one ever faster, meaner and more physiologically destructive. The injury list is as much a fixture of a college football weekend as the coaches' Top 25.
Overshadowing the long-term wreckage of joints and bones is the large and disturbing question of brain damage. Specifically, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a slow-developing degenerative condition similar in its effects to Alzheimer's, has been detected in a substantial majority of ex-football players, ones who never played in the National Football League—high-school and college players, in other words. A new study indicates damage from CTE in fully 96 percent of players who did make it to the NFL.
Degenerative conditions only get worse, and CTE doesn't stem from concussions as much as from small repetitive blows to the head—the kind that can be described as business-as-usual in football. Concussion protocols don't come into play when the major cognitive effects only appear 30 years down the road. Athletes who would willingly die for a championship ring aren't going to call attention to whatever thinking problems they experience after a making a game-winning hit.
It's a rare college player who can look at the end of his career rather than at the beginning, or imagine his decrepitude rather than his effortless movement. It's not as rare in the NFL. When 49ers linebacker Chris Borland quit football after a brilliant rookie season, it sent shockwaves through the sports commentariat. More than a few NFL players called it a courageous move, one they had thought about making themselves.
CTE is casting a long shadow over the game, with more studies being initiated every day. It's not as if the ones already completed are secret, and it's not as if the people who don't see it as a problem are prohibited from going to Google and typing in "brain damage" and "football."
Chris Borland, concussed in training camp, did enough research to conclude that losing his mind wasn't worth whatever millions awaited him over the rest of his NFL career. I don't imagine his entourage or 49ers management felt the same way, but they didn't have to live in his skull.
Which brings up the ethical dilemma of college football. As a liberal arts professor, my stance isn't going to surprise anyone: an institution like our own Boise State University, which supposedly exists to promote higher and better and more sophisticated thinking, shouldn't be in the business of destroying neocortexes.
The connection between education and the game as it's currently played seems antithetical at best. At worst, it shows college administrators and the business community will happily sacrifice young men for the bottom line. I don't suppose that sort of thing should surprise me, given that I lived through the Vietnam years, but it's a little disturbing that as a community, we're ignoring clear evidence that football wrecks the people who play it—even as study after study comes in.
I know there are plenty of young men who live for football, and if they made it to the NFL and lived for five more years, they would consider their lives complete. Things look different when you're gazing back at those five years and facing the horror of a brain that doesn't connect things together anymore. The courage of some of those damaged ex-players—who shot themselves in the chest rather than in the head, so their brains could be autopsied—is only matched by the suffering they must have gone through. Past glories could in no way redeem those hellish final moments.
I know there are old men who claim football teaches teamwork, selflessness, hard work, loyalty and self-discipline. None of those skills matter if you've lost your mind.
Football in Boise is big business. It brings millions of dollars into the local economy and it's provided an identity for Boise State that cannot be matched by any of its academic departments. However, it does depend on the destruction of human beings, both home and visitors, in the long run. That makes joining Bronco Nation a clear moral choice, if a tragic one.