Barack Obama said yesterday at the White House Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit that he’s “sure” he endured concussions playing on the gridiron as a kid. We knew he grabbed a lot of “interceptions.” Who knew he played football?
The team Barry Obama made as a high school student called themselves the “Choom Gang.” They drove around Honolulu smoking pot in a Volkswagen bus listening to Aerosmith. Obama pioneered such developments in the popular extracurricular activity as “roof hits,” “total absorption,” and “interceptions.” David Maraniss relays in his presidential biography, “When a joint was making the rounds, he [Obama] often elbowed his way in, out of turn, shouted ‘Intercepted!,’ and took an extra hit.”
There’s a reefer madness quality to the war on football. BU researcher Ann McKee worries to a national audience on PBS whether every football player might come down with the debilitating brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy. “The NFL is killing its players, literally leading them to an early grave,” Gregg Doyel, ignoring a federal study showing longer lifespans for NFL veterans, writes in a CBS Sports column. A New York legislator seeks to ban the sport for kids under eleven and several school board members propose that educational institutions divorce themselves entirely from the rough game. The president plays into this hysteria.
After divulging last year that he would hesitate to allow a hypothetical son to play football, the president compared football’s health risks to boxing and smoking this year. “I would not let my son play pro football,” Obama told the New Yorker‘s David Remnick as he watched the Miami Dolphins. “At this point, there’s a little bit of caveat emptor,” he maintained. “These guys, they know what they’re doing. They know what they’re buying into. It is no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”
But science has shown that smokers tend to die before nonsmokers, with scientific research, such as the pioneering British Doctors Study, demonstrating that the behavior corresponds to inflated risk of lung cancer. When the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) looked at nearly 3,500 NFL veterans who played between 1959 and 1988, the scientists found that they outlived men outside of the pros. Instead of the peer group’s 18 percent death rate, the pro group suffered a 10 percent death rate. The players enjoyed dramatically better outcomes than their non-playing peers with regard to cancer, heart disease, respiratory illness, diabetes, and, in fact, all of the “killer” categories examined save three. Running, jumping, and wrestling around a 100-yard field awards health benefits just as inhaling fumes under the bleachers imposes health costs.
When the Mayo Clinic compared hundreds of midcentury high school football players to members of the glee club, choir, and band, they hypothesized that they would discover higher rates of neurological disease among the athletes. They didn’t. Instead, they found slightly higher rates of Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease among the musical students and on the whole no statistically significant difference among the two groups. The NIOSH study similarly found a less-than-alarming 12 neurological disease deaths among the pros when the peer group prepped them to expect to find 10. Might “caveat emptor” more readily apply to those buying into the propaganda campaign against football?
Science shows not only that professional football players live longer but that athletes at all levels of the game are dying less. Whereas football hits killed 36 players in 1968, Obama’s first full year in Indonesia, they’ve killed just four per year during his presidency–far fewer brain-injury deaths than bicycling, skateboarding, skiing, and other supposedly non-contact sports. But as the game grows safer, rhetoric depicts it as more dangerous than ever.
The president has repeatedly lent his voice to such rhetoric. Yesterday, at the White House event, the president confessed to enduring concussions in his youth playing football. “Before the awareness was out there,” the president said yesterday, “when I was young and played football briefly, there were a couple of times where I’m sure that that ringing sensation in my head and the need to sit down for a while might have been a mild concussion, and at the time you didn’t think anything of it.”
The president, and so many others, lack awareness that the awareness surrounding concussions predates his existence. The year before Obama’s birth, Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik nailed Hall of Famer Frank Gifford into unconsciousness in Yankee Stadium. Gifford’s concussion resulted in hospitalization for several weeks, doctors preventing him from rejoining the Giants that season, and number sixteen sitting out the entire 1961 campaign. During Obama’s birth year, Wisconsin’s Interscholastic Athletic Association banned concussed players from competing in contact sports and Riddell produced “concussion kits” to go along with their helmets.
Concerns over football concussions trace back to the nineteenth century. Diagnosis and treatment remain mired there. Doctors still diagnose concussions clinically and still treat them with rest. No test tells a patient of a mild traumatic brain injury and no pill cures its symptoms.
Like concussion medicine, boys haven’t changed all that much in the past century. They still need camaraderie and an outlet to channel their angst, energy, and aggression. Some get that by passing a ball around the grass. Others get that by passing a bowl around filled with grass.
The gridiron is good for you. As the president’s high-school years show, young brains face worse threats than football.