Is Collegiate Football Too Dangerous?

In Response to: Time to End Football

In a letter in the Oct. 21 issue, Fred Doar ’77 called on Princeton to end the football program, saying the game “is causing massive brain damage to its players.” His idea prompted many readers to write letters and post comments at PAW Online. Here are some of them.

I served as a lineman at Princeton for four years in the 1970s, when Princeton football was noted largely for its mediocrity, and when the Ivy League, wisely, had begun its descent into the lower echelons of college football as part of its collective acknowledgement that we had more important things to do. The pain at the base of my skull, and my relative inability to flex my left ankle (a gift of a broken leg from Harvard in 1974), are daily reminders of that time served.

I am grateful for the opportunity, insofar as I am perpetually aware of the fact that were it not for the game, I would have never gained admission to Princeton. The game has never been without risk. Our increasing understanding of some of those risks, particularly the neurological ones, and the anecdotes that accompany them, make for great drama, but do not change the larger issue.

Our culture is replete with dangerous games. Individuals who engage in them, particularly young men and women who have the wherewithal to gain admission to Princeton, are capable of making some assessment of risk before and during their participation. The game of football is only one of them. The game, for all of its inherent lack of intellectual purpose, is embedded in the history of the University and embedded further in the collective consciousness of millions, and while it may ultimately go away, it will not do so quickly.

President Eisgruber, allow individuals, and at most, their parents, to make responsible risk assessments, and let them play their games. I hold no one — no coach, no institution, no parent — accountable for my aches and pains. My gratitude to the game, and to Princeton for allowing me to play it, knows no boundaries.

Kevin R. Fox ’77 
Philadelphia, Pa.

Mr. Doar has written to recommend an end to football for health reasons. 

Since our University was a partner in introducing the sport, perhaps it should sponsor a review “in the nation’s service.” To me, the most disconcerting fact about the new evidence is that some players who develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy have no history of concussions or on-field injury, just repeated head bumps.

Could there be, hiding within modern football and rugby, an undiscovered sport just as exciting, but without the head trauma? After all, round balls and peach baskets were here for centuries before Dr. Naismith put them together and called it basketball.

W.R. Cunnick Jr. ’47, M.D.
Port Washington, N.Y.

I strongly disagree with the view that Princeton should give up football. The writer makes some sweeping statements such as it is “undeniable” that football is bad for all players from peewees to the pros. Not true. 

I played football for three years in high school (with leather helmets) and another three years at Princeton with plastic helmets but no face guard. We played both offense and defense with no platoon systems. 

I am now 91 years old, and I have absolutely no ill effects from playing football. I have two good knees, two good hips, a strong heart, and mentally am just as sharp as in college. In fact, football added greatly to my maturity as a person and gave me the self-confidence that I needed. I look back on my football days with absolutely no regrets and as one of the really fun times of my life. 

It is true that some smaller, lightweight players should not be playing football, for today the game is very fast with huge linemen, but blocking and tackling rules have changed from my day to protect players from leg and bodily injury. In fact, I find it amazing that football players today don’t even get their uniforms dirty. Princeton should keep playing football along with all other college sports. Go Tigers. 

Tom Finical ’47
Scottsdale, Ariz.

Mr. Doar’s letter was disturbing, both in tone and substance. But that’s OK, as he clearly intended to be provocative. What’s not OK, at all, is for an adult to falsely accuse a team of 18- to 22-year-olds of being “damaged.” Why PAW felt justified in passing along that obscenity is beyond me. Fortunately, Tiger football players, young and old, have broad shoulders.

Jim Petrucci ’86 
Far Hills, N.J.

Editor’s note: Jim Petrucci was co-captain of the football team in 1985.

If Princeton got rid of football, then it might as well change the mascot to a declawed kitten. Athletes know the dangers of sports and, yes, some sports are more dangerous than others, but everyone who plays football is not “damaged.” I’m married to a football player and, ironically, I’m the one who could be considered “damaged” as I suffered a serious concussion pole vaulting for the University in 2009. I still chose to pole vault after that injury, fully aware of any risks. I chose to do this because I am the type of person who does not shy away from a challenge or hide when the going gets tough — champions rise to the occasion and “catch fire” (Peter Farrell, Princeton women’s track and field coach).

Those are the types of traits that athletics instill in players, and they are lifelong. I would not be the person I am today without athletics, both my own with track and field and going to football games with friends. If Princeton did cut football, then lacrosse would be next, then soccer, and hockey, and field hockey. Pretty soon there would be no Princeton athletics.

Athletics are an important part of a University experience. Athletes choose to play their sports (Princeton does not offer athletic scholarships); they can walk away at any time (as many have). However, athletes should continue to have the right to make that decision for themselves and not have it taken away from them by cutting programs because of inherent risk. We cannot actually live in an orange bubble, as Mr. Doar would like. Food for thought: Motor-vehicle accidents are the top cause of brain trauma; by Mr. Doar’s logic, the University should eliminate all parking lots so as to not support such a dangerous activity.

Bianca (Reo) Charbonneau ’12
North Bergen, N.J.

Re Fred Doar’s letter, two thoughts come to mind: First, why would he write it? Was he or someone close to him badly hurt playing football? It appears he played football for a time at Princeton. Perhaps he had a terrible experience; otherwise, it’s hard for me to understand his heavy-handed and negative attitude. Second, is PAW simply looking to generate reader reaction?

I played football for Princeton, and being part of the team was the most rewarding aspect of my Princeton experience. I suffered my share of injuries, but the benefits of playing far outweigh the toll it took on my body. 

When commanding players to “just walk in and quit,” saying, “You will never regret it,” Mr. Doar’s advice is plain wrong. Of all the players I’ve known at all levels, including two sons, playing football is among the greatest joys of our lives.

When he “challenges” President Eisgruber to end football, he ignores the benefits football brings to Princeton. In 2012, Princeton football energized the entire University community with a thrilling victory over Harvard and a Big Three championship.

Why is Mr. Doar picking on football? People get injured playing soccer, lacrosse, softball, and hockey, as well as skiing, skydiving, and mountain climbing. Perhaps he’ll expand his mission so that Princeton bans every activity capable of inducing human injury. 

On one thing, Mr. Doar and I agree. Princeton is the No. 1 school in the country. Let’s keep it that way.

Ted Fire ’86
Stow, Mass.

I’ve been a football fan all my life. Unlike some fans, I enjoy it for its artistry, not its violence. But as Fred Doar correctly points out, it’s a deliberately violent sport that has been shown to cause serious brain damage for many players. Thus it’s a good question as to whether Princeton, which prides itself on its cultivation of the mind, should continue sponsoring a sport that often harms the mind. Other sports such as track and field, soccer, and field hockey — though not without certain risks of their own — do not promote violence the way football does. I think that’s an important distinction to keep in mind in this interesting and worthwhile conversation. 

Tom Huckin ’64
Salt Lake City, Utah

Recently, poignant questions have been raised about student-athlete health and welfare, and where it ranks in the continuum of universities, their football programs, and the men who lead them. However, as a former student-athlete for head coach Bob Surace ’90, I know better than to question my alma mater.

As a direct result of Surace-implemented education programs on neurological symptoms of concussion, Tiger football players have saved the lives of two teammates that presented with non-football-related neurological episodes — one a stroke, and the other an aneurysm. In each instance, Surace was the first person to the hospital to be with the young men and the last to leave once the players’ families arrived. 

Surace has chosen to become a father figure to young men who otherwise never would have the opportunity to attend Princeton, and who upon matriculation often are told that they do not belong at Princeton. Through meticulous and genuine leadership, Surace convinces student-athletes to have the audacity to achieve and the resolve to sing “Old Nassau” with unabashedly vigorous pride. The program he has fashioned focuses on the achievement and value of the individual within the team.

One need look no further than Mason Darrow ’17’s experience as the first openly gay football player on an active NCAA roster to know that Surace is a leader of whom we can all be proud. With humble tenacity, Bob Surace embodies the athletic department’s mission — “education through athletics.” 

Tom Moak Jr. ’13
Atlanta, Ga.