Have we underestimated college football (and rugby)?

Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon (21) evades the Notre Dame defense en route to a touchdown during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in Ann Arbor, Mich. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER

The recent resignation of Dave Brandon, the University of Michigan’s athletic director, has again focused attention on sport related injuries. The severity of injuries, particularly concussions, in college football is increasing; so much so that in 2013, President Obama called on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to “think about” reforms to college football safety rules.

While football is a high profile contact sport in the United States, the degree of physical contact is similar for rugby — a game which bears some similarities to American football, but without protective gear. Rugby, already popular in several countries of the British Commonwealth including Nigeria and India, is fast becoming a global sport.

Like football, rugby is associated with acute spinal and traumatic brain injuries. Later in life, players of these games are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, brain tumors, Multiple Sclerosis, and a host of other neuro-psychiatric disorders.

Despite the growing research on the health risks associated with highly physical contact sports, this doesn’t seem to be diminishing their popularity.  As you read this, thousands of children around the world are working very hard to join either a football or rugby team. Indeed, next weekend you may well be watching one of these games.

As a physician, the injuries that arise from sports like American football and rugby concern me. Especially when I read stories like Stanley Doughty’s — the injuries he sustained while playing college football have left him without a degree and unable to work or play. Stories like this one remind me of the gladiators of ancient Rome. Yet at the same time, high-contact sports like these are very important in people’s lives and in our society.

Given this tradeoff between personal injury and the value people get out of playing and watching contact sports, what should be our response to the health risks inherent in these sports?

Let me know what you think.


Image via brosher.com

This piece was first published by the University of Michigan Risk Science Center

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