Friday, March 1, 2013

Research shows: Christians should take a pass on tackle football

Oftentimes clinical psychologists and mental health counselors like myself shy away from political issues and public advocacy.  We often define our work as a-political and even sometimes as morally non-judgmental especially in relation to political controversy.  Phillip Rieff, in his influential and insightful work, The Triumph of the Therapeutic suggested that it was Freud who introduced to the modern world the basic ideals of a therapeutic culture that avoids moral judgment, is largely anti-institutional, and retreats from public life.  Rieff suggests that Freud’s pessimism about social progress and his emphasis upon exploring the intra-psychic life appeals to modern persons who seek to retreat from the larger questions of social and political life and prefer to enjoy an expansion of their personal freedom and private interests. The fact is, in addition to functioning as therapists, psychologists are also citizens, parents, consumers and some are even church-going believers.  To avoid the issues arising from these roles is quite impossible—to remain silent and seek to remain merely private in one’s work and cultural life is itself a political stance.  Of course many psychotherapists have recognized the social and cultural origins of the mental health problems afflicting the client they see in their practice.  However the largely individualistic approach remains the dominant model for psychotherapy.  Public approaches to mental health do not focus on social or cultural change.  Mental health institutions manage individuals largely through medication and confinement of persons who pose a danger to themselves or others. 

Due to the widespread acceptance of the non-political, non judgmental, individualistic focus of psychotherapy it is difficult and sometimes awkward for psychologists and counselors to take public positions on social and political issues.  It seems inappropriate to one’s professional identity and doing so may be detrimental to one’s ability to attract clients. In this post, I am crossing the threshold into the public domain at the risk of stirring up a part of American culture that increasingly has taken on a religious aura.  I am talking about the sport of tackle football.  The Superbowl games of recent years have taken on the character of a “holy day” or holiday for many Americans.  Football games in many college and universities are festivals and grand events attended by hundreds of thousands each year.  Football is played in high school and can begin as early as elementary school for some.  Football has become America’s game displacing baseball.  While baseball may be America’s pastime, football has become its passion. 

Leaving the religious elements of football aside, the dark side of the game in terms of its dangers and long-term destructive effects upon the players has become a growing public issue.  Once just a quiet whisper confined to training rooms, the players themselves have finally begun to speak up and take action.  In several high-profile cases their voices has come from the barrel of a gun while others have turned to the courts.  Some 3,500 former NFL players are suing the league for damages resulting from football injuries.  It has taken suicides and lawsuits for the public to begin to reflect on the nature of the game itself.  What sport, other than boxing, is essentially focused on aggressive contact with opponents?  The sport is brutal and glorifies violence.  The New Orleans Saints were recently punished by the NFL when it became apparent that players were being encouraged and rewarded for intentionally injuring other players.  While the “Saints” behavior was extreme it exposed a mentality that has been part of the league and part of the culture of football for many decades.  Football players “put the hurt” on their opponents and the more aggressive, the better.   If this approach merely resulted in busted knees and broken ankles it would be perhaps tolerable, but recent research has given clear evidence of significant short-term and long term cognitive and emotional dysfunction resulting from playing tackle football.  The cognitive deficits appear not only when concussive injuries occur, but increasingly evidence points toward negative cognitive effects upon players from just one football season in which no apparent concussive injuries were reported.  The long-term effects are even more devastating resulting in higher incidence of Parkinson’s disease, major depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s among football players.   These medical effects are often associated with other psychological and interpersonal dysfunction—domestic violence, alcoholism and other forms of violent behavior.  Efforts to respond these issues from the NFL all the way down to high school football have included greater attention to concussions, lighter practices, penalties for grossly intentional and dangerous tackling, etc. along with well-funded public relations advertising highlighting how concerned the football establishment is about protecting players.  However, the fact remains that the risks now evident from playing football are endemic to the game itself and unavoidable given the nature of tackle football.  It is what makes the game what it is--attractive and exciting to play and to watch.

Because of this evidence I have begun to publically call for a ban upon tackle football.  Given what we now know, I counsel any parent concerned about the health of their children to boycott football for their kids and at their schools.   Based upon the research, I believe it to be a public responsibility for colleges and universities to terminate their tackle football programs.  And because I am a Christian psychologist I especially call on Christian institutions of higher learning to cease participation in a sport that poses such great risk to their students and offers up a set of values so contrary to a life of peace and good sportsmanship.

 Michael DeVries, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Trinity Christian College