I’m going to hazard a guess that nothing uttered Wednesday at Pac-12 media day will match the viral whiplash of North Carolina coach Larry Fedora and his comments about the future of football.
Fedora’s peculiar thoughts about head trauma have been the biggest story by far of conference media days. (A low bar, but still.) Whether it was his intention or not, a coach who comes across as a few credits short of his Ph.D. has ensured that football season begins with another robust discussion about the dangers and myths surrounding CTE.
Maybe that’s not a bad thing.
You don’t have to agree with Fedora’s take on the subject to see the value in having the conversation. The easy thing is to shove these thoughts to the back of your mind and focus on the fun stuff, like depth charts and rosters and preseason polls. There’s nothing like a wrongheaded opinion to rouse people from their stupor and bring an important issue back to the forefront.
If you missed it, Fedora caused a stir by suggesting that football is “under attack” from outside forces that, if left unchecked, will render the game unrecognizable, thereby leading to the collapse of American society (or something). He also implied that the link between football and CTE remains scientifically murky, which is the truest part of the whole rant.
“I don’t think it’s been proven that the game of football causes CTE,” Fedora said. “We don’t really know that.”
The response was swift and emphatic. One national columnist called for Fedora to be fired. Another consulted a raft of medical experts who backed up Fedora’s assertion that football is not a proven cause of CTE.
“It’s not a settled matter by any means,” Peter Cummings, a neuropathologist and associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine, told Yahoo Sports. “And football is safer today than it has ever been. In fact, I would argue that no other sport has made a more radical transformation in response to safety concerns than football. His comments reflect the reality of the scientific uncertainty surrounding CTE.”
The challenge, here, is to separate the red herrings from the important stuff. Employing the language of war, as Fedora did quite explicitly, seems like an unhelpful metaphor. I’m not aware of any anti-football cabal operating from the shadows, trying to emasculate or eliminate the game.
Most of the people talking about CTE actually like football. That’s why they’re talking about it: because they want football to survive in a form that doesn’t leave its participants battered and scarred for life.
So let’s forget about the idea that football is under attack, and let’s talk about what the science actually says. Fedora is correct in saying that we don’t have a definitive study quantifying the risk of contracting CTE through the kind of head trauma that occurs routinely in football. We don’t know what percentage of football players will develop the disease, or why some suffer horribly while others appear unaffected.
We can say with a reasonable degree of certainty head trauma is a risk factor in developing CTE, and that some of those who play football are going to end up with the disease. Is it 10 percent? Fifty percent? Seventy percent? Are the percentages significantly higher in NFL players versus, say, those who play only in college or high school?
Those are things we don’t yet know. The study that attracted the most attention consisted of 202 deceased football players, 111 of whom played in the NFL. Of those 111, 110 showed signs of CTE in postmortem brain exams.
It’s been accurately noted that this was not an unbiased sample, because those donating their brains were football players who suspected they might have the disease. We don’t know how this sample would compare to football players at large, or non-football players who also developed mental illness.
So if you’re inclined to focus on the unanswered questions, you’ll be in the company of some very smart scientists. But here’s why, for the average person, I think that’s the wrong approach.
Last year, New York Magazine published a story about climate change that offered some fairly dire and alarming predictions. The story sparked debate about, among other things, the difference between certainty and probability — i.e., the difference between things that might happen and things that can’t be avoided.
It’s perfectly acceptable — desirable, even — to avoid sweeping conclusions that science has yet to validate. The danger is that in waiting for scientific certainty, we delay the common-sense changes that can mitigate future damage.
I don’t need a scientific study to tell me it feels like the inside of a blast furnace when I step outside lately. In the same way, I don’t need scientific certainty about CTE to know that slamming your head into another person at high velocity might be a dangerous thing.
That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to fill in the gaps with science. It just means that we shouldn’t use a lack of certainty to deny or discredit something all of us can see with our own eyes.
Fortunately, football isn’t waiting around to get safer. The game is evolving, and the evolution must continue as we learn more about the effects of brain trauma. It’s important not to be lulled into inaction because we think all the important questions have been settled.
I guess we can thank Larry Fedora for the reminder.
Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email email@example.com.