I love football. My husband Pete played right guard and defensive end in high school, and a picture of him in his uniform (#67) is on my dresser. Pete and I were season ticket holders for The Atlanta Falcons for more than a decade. Before that, we were season ticket holders for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. I was commissioner of a fantasy football league for more than a decade. I love football, but I have mostly given it up, because it is hurting our athletes.
The evidence is unmistakable: football players can develop traumatic brain injuries decades later, even if they never had a concussion. The NFL agrees that a third of former players will develop serious brain injuries. In 79 brains of former players studied by the nation’s largest brain bank, 76 had traumatic brain injuries. Suicides among former players suffering from brain injuries are rising.
When our oldest son was born, Pete and I had several conversations about whether we would let him play football. Pete showed me his slightly crooked left pinky finger, noted that a jammed finger was his only real injury, and argued that the sport is perfectly safe at the high-school level. That was ten years ago. These days, with every new news report about chronic traumatic encephalitis (CTE), he cowers. He is worried that all those hits as a lineman will catch up with him—and he only played through high school. Not the big hits, but the accumulation of small hits. When our now 11-year-old begged to join a rugby team this fall, it was Pete who said no.
Every time this topic comes up, the phrase “an inconvenient truth” comes to mind. The facts are extremely inconvenient. But the evidence is so clear at this point that it seems irresponsible to continue with the status quo. At minimum, it’s time for major rule changes. But I’m skeptical that rule changes can fix the problem. I’m wondering if it’s time for us to cancel football. Especially college football. As a university, our mission is to nurture our students—to help prepare them for productive and healthy lives as members of society. All of our students—including members of our football team. Can we really say right now that we are putting their best interests first?
Pro football players are adults, and they make their own choices. But in college football, the students have been put in our care. Our responsibilities as a university are different.
Yes, I know what I’m suggesting would cause a firestorm of unprecedented proportions. Yes, I know the alumni will riot. But should we refuse to do the right thing because it’s inconvenient or unpopular?
I admire Chris Borland, who left the NFL after one year out of concern for his health. I admire my colleague Janet Murray, who turned down an invitation to be guest coach for our football team because she feels the damage the sport is doing to our students’ long-term health is unjustifiable. She explained this in a letter to our football coach. More people need to stand up. It’s time for things to change.
It seems likely that over the next several years a series of high-profile lawsuits will lead to multi-million dollar judgments for former players, both college and pro. I wouldn’t buy stock in a company that insures NFL teams. As a state school, Georgia Tech typically doesn’t buy insurance—we self insure, or rely on our sovereign immunity from lawsuits. I don’t understand the legal nuances here, but I wonder what’s going to happen. If state sovereign immunity holds up in court, will our former players get no compensation? If it doesn’t hold up, will we have fewer science labs and student lounges because all our money is going to cover football liability? Neither option is appealing.
After the first round of lawsuits, no doubt the rules of football will be changed to make it safer. I’ll speculate that a few years later, there will be more lawsuits saying, “Sorry, we’re still getting hurt.” And then the rules will change more. And onwards, until eventually the game will be unrecognizable from what it is today. But do we really need to let this whole process take decades? Given that the end seems inevitable, can we speed things up a bit by doing the right thing now?
Georgia Tech’s mission statement says, “We will be leaders in improving the human condition in Georgia, the United States, and around the globe.” I hope we have the courage to lead on this issue. It would certainly make a statement if we said, “We are cancelling football, because it’s not safe.” We can have our homecoming celebration at a basketball or baseball game. They are also fine traditions.
We gave up our NFL season tickets this year, and I don’t play fantasy football any more. I do sometimes still watch Falcons and Yellow Jackets games on television, but feel guilty even about that.
To everyone reading this, especially my fellow faculty members at Georgia Tech, and others schools: If you agree, I hope you’ll say something. Publicly. We need all of us to speak up, if change is to happen sooner rather than later. Before another generation of players suffer the consequences.
Privacy is an increasingly important social implication of technology, and we spend quite a bit of time about it in our required undergraduate ethics and social implications of technology class, CS 4001. Since we’re talking about privacy, it makes sense to talk about surveillance. Since 2004, I’ve taught a class about The USA PATRIOT Act, and more recently I’ve added a class on information revealed by Edward Snowden. I spend more time preparing for those classes than for any other two or three put together—it’s confusing and complicated. There are provisions of the Patriot Act that are absolutely essential—like broadening the jurisdiction of warrants to tap phones to the entire country (rather than making you get a warrant in each state). And others that are egregious violations of our liberty—like the section 215 provision that lets the government get the records of any organization without a warrant or probable cause and bars the organization from acknowledging the search. The FBI can simply demand the membership list of a mosque—and they have done so. For the last two years, I’ve assigned my students to watch the PBS Frontline documentary United States of Secrets, about US warrantless surveillance (“The Program”) and information leaked by Edward Snowden. In our class discussion, we don’t focus on Snowden, but on other people—like NSA analyst Thomas Drake—and the tough decisions they had to make. After class on Tuesday where I carefully spell out what’s allowed under the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), I feel like a bit of fool on Thursday when we discuss The Program and the fact that all those rules aren’t really followed anyway.
I do my best not to express any opinions to my class—I present the facts, and ask them what they think. And as much as possible, I emphasize tradeoffs and try to show the issues as complicated. And then I walk back from class and scratch my head—what do I actually think?
After class last week, two things became clearer in my mind. The first is about checks and balances. My children are learning about checks and balances in elementary school social studies class. Checks and balances are fundamental to how our government works. And it suddenly became evident to me that most cases of the system going too far are situations where checks and balances are not occurring. You don’t need a court order to get records with a National Security Letter (NSL). Why not? A secret court like the FISA court could do the job. And if it’s urgent, the review could take place within a reasonable time after the fact (as FISA mandates for surveillance.) It’s too much to ask any one branch of government to police themselves. The FBI needs to pursue things as aggressively as they dare, and the judiciary needs to say, “You may go this far and no farther.” Parts of the Patriot Act removed checks and balances, and procedures without checks and balances are where we get into trouble. Everything you need to know we all learned in elementary school—but somehow, we’ve forgotten it.
The second thought is about means and ends. It is possible for me to describe a fictional situation in which reasonable people would agree that that the ends justify evil means—like recording everyone all the time, or torturing someone for information. If you don’t agree with that statement, make the situation more extreme until you do. But in real life, the evidence for the need is almost never that compelling. If you demand an iron-clad case, you’ll (almost) never say the ends justify evil means in real situations. Real life is not an episode of ’24’.