WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A retired epidemiologist Tuesday night challenged the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee to take the lead on addressing "an epidemic in slow motion" by suspending the district's high school football program.
Dr. Nicholas Wright gave a presentation to the committee outlining some of the evidence that full contact football presents a severe concussion risk to its participants — so severe that the extracurricular activity is incompatible with the school's mission.
Wright went further, suggesting that the school district challenge the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association to take the same step and replace its current football program with a flag football league.
Wright decried the " 'iron curtain' of denial of any relationship between concussion and later pathology" and pinned the blame on the National Football League for perpetuating that narrative, comparing it to Big Tobacco.
"In effect, with regard to concussive and subconcussive blows to the head and their causal relationship to premature dementia, depression and other adverse neurocognitive outcomes, we are where the tobacco and cancer story was in the mid to late 1950s, when tobacco companies were still claiming that any relationship to multiple cancers was 'mere statistical association,' that is, not causal," Wright said.
Wright pointed the committee to several academic papers that have been published on the subject, as well as last year's film "Concussion," which chronicled the work of a Pennsylvania doctor who identified a brain lesion linked to trauma in the body of deceased former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster.
Concussion rates for football players are alarmingly higher than the rates seen in other sports, Wright said. Specifically, baseball's concussion rate is 90 percent lower than football's, according to data reported by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine in 2013.
"These disparities of risk are not well-appreciated and have implications for athletic policy," Wright said. "For example, if baseball delivers effectively all the the social benefits we attribute to sport — self-confidence, team play, competitive spirit, etc. — as well as any other sport, why sponsor a much riskier sport like football at the high school level?"
Several members of the School Committee expressed sympathy with Wright's larger point about the dangers of football, but committee member Chris Dodig said he was hesitant to take action on Wright's recommendation.
"I certainly agree that concussion is a big problem, or traumatic brain injury, whatever name we give it," Dodig said. "I'm pleased it's coming out of the background.
"But I think your argument does not take into account the value Americans place on freedom of choice."
He also questioned why Wright's argument would lead the district to stop at suspending football.
"To ask a School Committee to say, 100 [on a scale of concussion rates] is bad, but 30, we can allow that … I think what you're really asking from us is a suspension of contact sports altogether," Dodig said.
Dodig maintained that the pervasiveness of football in American culture makes it a much larger issue than a single school district can address.
"The NFL makes playing football cool just like Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man before them made smoking cigarettes cool," he said. "I understand and agree with you, but I don't think it's a decision for the School Committee to make. I do think it may be worthwhile for schools throughout the county and the state to look at this issue."
Wright countered that local control is part of the School Committee's mandate, and it would be appropriate to exercise that control when it came to protecting students' health.
"I think we have agency at the local level to fight back at this kind of stuff," he said. "I think we're capable of making decisions at the local level."
Committee member Steven Miller argued that the step Wright proposed should not be made without consulting with the larger community. Wendy Penner asked Wright how he would suggest making that case to the community.
"Do you think a community showing of 'Concussion' would help?" Penner asked. "I work with the issue of addiction, and I think the comparison to Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man is apt.
"The leadership on this is not going to come from professional football. It's not going to be a top-down change. It's going to come from growing awareness at the grassroots level of the level of the risks."
Penner said the School Committee should follow up with the school's athletic director to see how Mount Greylock can better educate the families who are making the decision to allow their children to play high school football.
Sheila Hebert, who was elected chairman of the School Committee earlier in Tuesday's meeting, said she would ask Athletic Director Lindsey von Holtz to address the issue with the committee at its next meeting in December.
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