Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Catholic Silence on Football Risks: While Studies Raise Alarm about Long-Term Effects of Repeated Blows to Head, There Is Little Discussion of Ethics

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Catholic Silence on Football Risks: While Studies Raise Alarm about Long-Term Effects of Repeated Blows to Head, There Is Little Discussion of Ethics

Article excerpt

Growing scientific evidence that football players can suffer permanent mental disease has so far stirred no broad discussion among Catholic colleges and high schools or national church organizations about the ethics of continuing to sponsor the game.

A sampling of Catholic groups and scholars who study sports culture and promote its moral benefits say they believe the medical hazards exposed by the research raise serious questions about the continuation of football but add that they haven't called attention to the apparent threat, in part because it could ignite stormy protests by fans and financial backers.

Some believe more evidence is needed but concede that the existing findings are alarming.

Pope John Paul II, a former soccer player with a love of sports, provided a rationale for making hard choices. Sports could be "a gymnasium of the spirit, a means to exercise moral education," he told a Milan, Italy, soccer team in 1979, only if it was "inspired by healthy principles that exclude all. unnecessary risks on the part of the athlete, and the disordered emotions on the part of the fans that may occur in competition."

Experiments conducted in recent years by Purdue University, the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina, among others, have shown widespread brain damage to current and former players from high school through the National Football League.

While the bulk of media coverage has been on the effects of concussions, the most sensational head injury, studies have raised increasing alarm that repeated blows to the head that appear harmless can eventually result in the same chronic illnesses, among them, memory loss, depression, Alzheimer's and dementia.

One analogy cited by some sources is the cumulative effect of smoking: No single cigarette triggers lung disease. Another is the grim image of a death by a thousand cuts.

The scientific catch name for the collection of most serious diseases is CTE, "chronic traumatic encephalopathy," signs of which have been found in college players. Former NFL players with brain disorders have been filing suits against the league, alleging they were kept in the dark about the risks to their mental health.

No widespread alarm over the link between football and the long-term welfare of players has emerged in Catholic circles, however, according to an informal survey. Neither the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities nor the Catholic Theological Society of America, for example, has devoted conference time or special sessions to the subject.

Nor have church and society centers and institutes at universities such as Notre Dame taken up the cause. Instead, the problem has been largely left to athletic trainers and coaches, who are relied upon to improve strategies for treating concussed players and upgrading precautions.

Michael Galligan - Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, says the 240 member schools are aware of the research and dedicated to player safety. Though the association's core members, college presidents, have never convened discussions on long-term injuries, he said, a "stronger response" would be war ranted if science produces a stronger case.

But the former football player and basketball coach said it would be "morally wrong" to sponsor football "if it's clear a person would end up mentally and physically impaired," adding emphatically, "but we're not there yet." For now, he said, coaches and their staffs are able to "make the right decisions."

A special edition of the National Catholic Educational Association's Momentum magazine in 2009 reflects i similar ambivalence. Titled "Sportsand Spirituality," the issue paid legitimate attention to the legacy of Catholic belief in the virtue of sports and included debate over whether sports actually produces character. However, it contained no references to the dangers that had recently emerged in the news. …

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