By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It used to be that our presidents’ involvement with football didn’t go far beyond that of being a fan.
Oh, there was that moment in 1969 when Richard M. Nixon, who would have far more important things to worry about later in his presidency, attended Texas’ 15-14 victory over Arkansas and presented the Longhorns with a post-game plaque, declaring them national champions, while an undefeated Penn State team, which had the nation’s longest winning streak at 15 games, seethed.
But mostly they would restrict themselves to rooting for their alma maters or sitting on the sidelines of the Army-Navy game, changing their seats at halftime.
Now, however, President Barack Obama has inserted himself into a controversial aspect of today’s game, proclaiming in an article in The New Republic that he is isn’t sure he would let his son play football because of the physical dangers and the long-term impact it has been shown to have upon its participants.
“I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you, if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” President Obama is quoted as saying in the Feb. 11 edition of the magazine.
“And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”
Obama’s position is not without precedent.
At the turn of the 20th century, football was a popular but brutal game, so much so that in 1904 The Chicago Tribune reported 18 deaths attributed to football and 159 serious injuries, most of them in prep football.
Newspapers were up in arms about the sport, so much so that the Beaumont (Texas) Express published:
“The once athletic sport has degenerated into a contest that for brutality is little better than the gladiatorial combats in the arena in ancient Rome.”
Teddy Roosevelt was president at the time, a big football fan, but a man who, like Obama today, felt action had to be taken.
The violence had hit home with him, his own son being bruised and having a nose broken during a college football game, and Roosevelt was ready to act. He pushed for radical changes, leading to a conference before the 1906 season in which the forward pass was legalized among many other changes aimed at creating safety in the game.
This is not unlike what has been going on in football today, headed in part by Dr. Julian Bailes, once head of the neurosurgery department at West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.
Head and spinal injuries had reached the point in the game where medical people felt intervention was necessary. Former players’ deaths had shown permanent brain damage from their playing days, sometimes leading to violent deaths and suicide.
Among those involved in this and who were studied by Dr. Bailes was former WVU wide receiver Chris Henry, who went on to play for the Cincinnati Bengals and died an accidental death.
What was found was surprising to the researchers, for Henry had not had a history of serious trauma to his head yet Henry’s brain was filled with brown spots that signified CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
At the time, Dr. Bailes noted that changes were coming to football.
“We may have to take the head out of the game as much as we can,” Dr. Bailes said.
And changes have come in the rules, in the equipment, in the treatment and the caution shown … and this may just be the beginning now that the president has offered his position on the matter.
President Obama clearly makes it known that he is far more concerned over the safety in the college game than in the NFL.
“The NFL players have a union; they’re grown men; they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies,” President Obama said. “You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth, and then have nothing to fall back on. That’s something that I’d like to see the NCAA think about.”
Indeed, the game is changing, and much of the violence is trying to be legislated out of it, penalizing head-to-head hits, even slaps to the head and late hits.
Even now, within the last week, Dr. Bailes was involved in a new discovery that may help.
Dr. Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago now, said, “We do know that tau protein deposits, the heavier the tau burden in someone’s brain, correlates with brain cell loss, with neuron loss.”
And he says through PET scans they can discover this in living people and that might help in the long-term treatment of this brain disease.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org ot follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.