Football (18 September 2014)

I loved playing and watching football. When much younger, I was a decent blocker and seemed to have glue on my left hand when catching passes. Of course, my right hand invariably acted like it was catching a hot potato. And I was never big enough, strong enough, or fast enough to be a great blocker. I had a coach’s eye for the game, watching endless hours of football on television. No nuance on the offensive or defensive lines eluded my notice. I could often call games better than many television announcers. I even lived a few blocks from RFK Stadium, home of the storied professional football team in Washington DC, the team with the racist name. Those were exciting times indeed. But I have grown older and hopefully wiser.

Football teams acts like financial black holes, usually redistributing wealth to one person or occasionally a handful of people per team. Even though Carleton promised not to spend a dime of its own funds on football – those funds were supposed to come from John Ruddy [see the footnote at the bottom of this post] and other old crows – our football team has taken over the soccer team’s old practice and playing field. And thus Carleton just spent what I am guessing is a couple hundred thousand dollars on a new beautifully drained artificial turf soccer field between Bronson and parking lot P3, all because of being displaced by football. I suspect that the old crows did not pay for that field. As a former board member once suggested, I wonder whether the motivation for a new $35 million parking garage over the O-Train and its proposed multiple additions were motivated by having adequate parking for university and professional football games. See the following link for how much money football teams cost universities, even the supposedly good teams, i.e. they pretty much all lose huge sums of money that universities could have found far better uses for.

Football is downright sexist. Did the old crows donate any monies to women’s athletics when they came up with the initial payment of $5 million for men’s-only football? Did Carleton’s equity services office ever weigh-in on this gender-biased donation? How many women’s football teams have you seen, at any level? The only obvious one is the recently re-named Lingerie Football League, a group of paid (I cannot say ‘professional’) scantily clad women playing football. It’s hard to get more sexist than that.

Football is an officially sanctioned group of people physically assaulting one another. Tackling and blocking would be criminal offenses if you did that to someone on the street. The recent spate of domestic violence reports by football players may be players forgetting about context: the violence and assaults that are allowed on the playing field are simply not allowed off the field. Maybe not as bad as boxing, but football is really violent. One of Carleton’s preeminent neuroscience researchers, Matt Holahan, studies effects of concussions. The number of concussions and consequent chronic neurological problems is finally being documented and is pervasive in football. This month, the National Football League admitted in U.S. federal court to a conservative albeit staggering estimate that one-third of their players have suffered cognitive problems as a result of on-field head injuries (see the New York Times story). Should a place of higher education such as Carleton be sponsoring an activity like football that often causes permanent brain damage? The only sporting hypocrisy that I have seen worse than university football was one of my nieces being on a fencing team for her Quaker high school. Quakers are supposed to be pacifists, but who somehow enjoy the entertainment of a good sword fight!

In the past decade, the Ontario Ministry of Labour has impressively stepped-up worker safety efforts. Workplace injuries now occur much less frequently and are less severe because of these important government regulations and oversight. With the extreme number of per capita injuries in football, why doesn’t the Ministry of Labour intercede? Professional football is certainly a workplace and should be regulated as such. The U.S. (but not yet Ontario) government specified that, unlike other students, university football players are employees, so all labour laws apply (see the Chicago Tribune). Maybe a pipe-dream, but it would be fantastic if the Ontario Ministry of Labour regulated workplace safety of university and professional football, holding these teams to the same standards as all other occupations and workplaces. As much as I want my students to learn, even more, I want them to live long healthy and happy lives, not ones marred by irreversible effects of officially sanctioned violence of university football programs that are bankrolled by corporate interests.

Better late than never, many old football fans like me are finally seeing the problems associated with the sport. These old fans are abandoning the game, including abandoning watching football. As Steve Almond recently wrote in the Washington Post, “The future of football will be determined not by a mass boycott or a government crackdown but by individual fans who confront the brutal realities of their favorite sport and act as their own consciences recommend.” It is curious, if not foolish, that Carleton is on the wrong side of history here, recently lavishing space and even money on a new football program, when much of the rest of the world is coming to its senses and no longer glorifying the extravagant expense, sexism, and violence that pervades football.

  • John Ruddy provided half of the $5 million donation to start Carleton’s football program. He is a former member of Carleton’s Board of Governors and co-owns the local professional football team that several of my academic colleagues affectionately call the “Ottawa Rednecks”.
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3 comments
  1. Thomas Kunz said:

    I almost completely disagree with you on the football topic. I happened to be in the Glebe during the Panda game, wearing my Carleton Raven polo shirt (both coincidences, as I don’t really follow football and had forgotten about the game). Multiple people, on seeing my shirt, went “Go Ravens Go”, and a number of shopkeepers asked me about the score. There was clearly a buzz in the air, reflecting positively on both universities. Imagine what would happen if Carleton’s team were to play in a championship game, given how sports-crazy Ottawa can be.
    As for the violence and injury argument, I think that people make risky choices all the time, and that this is part of what makes life interesting. Any football player claiming to not know that he risks injury is about as believable as a smoker claiming that he had no idea that smoking has negative health impacts. So I assume that playing football is a deliberate decision and it is hardly our place to prevent people from making these choices (within limits – there are obvious dangerous activities we could and do ban…). Imagine if we banned all sports that either feature people fighting against each other (fencing, martial arts, boxing, soccer, basketball, hockey, etc.) or that otherwise have a higher than average rate of injury (racing, downhill skiing, etc.). Soon we will be left with exciting sports such as bridge or chess (though they may have, for all I know, a higher than average rate of repetitive stress injuries 🙂 ). And this is not limited to organized sport: people smoke, people drink, people go rock climbing or white-water rafting, fly in airplanes or fly planes, … Do you really want a government agency (Ministry of Labour or otherwise) watch over your shoulders and regulate everythink you do from a risk perspective? How boring would that be?
    As a university, I think that we should encourage current and potential students to develop all their potentials, and I think we are not doing too badly, from the enrichment mini courses in May, to some of the outreach we do in my faculty with robotics clubs, to the art gallery, and, yes, also sports. Some of these will cost more money/require more resources than others. I never begrudged the basketball team their support (and I am sure that it is not free either, what with coaches, training and playing facilities, travel to games, etc.). Along the same lines, I think we are not spending all that much on the football team. Nor am I convinced that should we stop football, the resources spent on the team, much if not all of which pays for infrastructure that is then also available for others (the new gym, for example), would become magically available elsewhere.
    To finish on a point of agreement: I do wonder too how well we support women sports, given that the two most high-profile sports teams on campus are men’s basketball andnow football. I wonder if we would meet the Title IX requirements in the US if they applied here. So that may well be an avenue to pursue further, I have to admit that I know very little about the detailed budget of the athletics department, so that may well be a question worth raising.

    • My respected colleague Professor Kunz highlights how playing football is barely different from the risk-taking of smoking cigarettes. I very much agree with him on this accord. Where we disagree is that he would allow both football and smoking on campus, whereas I believe that both should be banned from universities.

      Please allow me to discuss regulation of risky behavior (and I promise not to mention risky consensual sex). In days of yore, government regulation effectively did not exist. In the late 1800s, for specious reasons, corporations obtained many of the right of individuals. Regulation was then enacted to ameliorate the overwhelming differences in power between human individuals and corporate individuals. I highlight this tension between corporate and personal interests because Carleton football is a corporate enterprise, bankrolled by powerful entrepreneurs. Impressionable male high school graduates are coerced into playing the gladiator-like sport of university football by people with massive financial wealth. This is one way in which institutions pretend to reconcile permanent brain injuries with higher education.

      I do not advocate governments regulating away all excitement. That seems like too much of a cardboard caricature of what regulators do. Not sure that any of the Carleton administration or Board of Governors consider me to be someone who quashes excitement. In fact, they may think that I instill too much of it! Yet, I was trained as regulator, with a master’s degree in public utility regulation, and work experience with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Oregon Public Utility Commission, and New Mexico Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Unit. Regulators are not dementors!

      • Graham Smart said:

        Root, you say the following:

        “John Ruddy provided half of the $5 million donation to start Carleton’s football program. He is a former member of Carleton’s Board of Governors and co-owns the local professional football team that several of my academic colleagues affectionately call the “Ottawa Rednecks”.”

        Just a point of clarification, or perhaps amplification: John Ruddy was a defensive halfback for the football Ravens several decades ago, many years before becoming an entrepreneur and before joining Carleton’s BoG. I believe he’s been an active member of the Carleton Old Crows, an alumni assocation for former Raven football players, ever since his football-playing days at Carleton ended.

        So with this context, I think it’s fair to say you’ve gone a little over the top when you say this:

        “I highlight this tension between corporate and personal interests because Carleton football is a corporate enterprise, bankrolled by powerful entrepreneurs. Impressionable male high school graduates are coerced into playing the gladiator-like sport of university football by people with massive financial wealth.”

        On a related (or maybe not related) note, I played for the basketball Ravens many, many, many years ago, and some of the lessons I learned and character traits I developed through that experience continue to serve me well today.

        Graham

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