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A "Bad Influence": Over a Century of Risk in the Army-Navy Game

This Saturday will mark the 116th Army-Navy game, a beloved tradition of the service academies as well as the wider college football world. Given what we know about the dangers of concussions, however, can we expect it to continue indefinitely?
December 11, 2015, 7:11pm
Photo by Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

The meeting of Grover Cleveland's Cabinet took place in February 1894, a few months after Army and Navy played a raucous football game in 1893. Eight thousand fans had showed up to watch that contest, during which Naval cadet Joseph M. Reeves, upon hearing from a doctor that he was risking death or "instant insanity" if he took another blow to the head, wore the first crudely fashioned leather helmet.

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The question before the Cabinet that day was whether the Army-Navy game, which had started as a casual pick-up game in 1890, was worth keeping, given the violence and the fanaticism it engendered. The superintendent of the military academy, a Civil War veteran named Oswald Ernst, proclaimed the Army-Navy game a "bad influence," and by the end of the meeting the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy had agreed to call it to a halt.

READ MORE: Chloroformed Goats and Stolen Mules: The Army-Navy Mascot Wars

Eventually, of course, the pull of Army-Navy and all it represented proved too strong. Thanks in part to the lobbying efforts of Teddy Roosevelt, the game was restored in 1899, and this Saturday in Philadelphia, Army and Navy will meet for the 116th time, commanding the major college football stage, no doubt garnering strong ratings, and serving as a potent recruiting advertisement. Yet even as it stands as one of the great spectacles in sport, there are those who would level the same criticism at the Army-Navy game that Oswald Ernst did all those years ago: that it is simply unnecessary, and perhaps even dangerous, given what we now know about traumatic brain injuries.

In September, the New York Times reported that boxing—which was made a requirement at the U.S. Military Academy in 1905, at Teddy Roosevelt's behest, and is still mandatory for first-year cadets—resulted in 97 documented concussions at West Point over the past three academic years, and 29 at the Naval Academy, which is more than even football. (It took the Times months to acquire that data after generals reportedly tried to withhold information in order to encourage competing news organizations to publish a more positive story.) "Maybe you could justify it if there is some crucial lifesaving skill that can't be taught in any other way," neurologist Robert Cantu told the Times. "But short of that, it's absolutely stupid."

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Football at the service academies, like at other schools, is a huge financial driver in a way that boxing will never be, as well as a source of pride for alumni and military families. For last year's game, which was played in Baltimore, city and state officials predicted the economic impact could be as much as $30 million; last year's television ratings hit a 15-year high, and CBS continues to hold the rights through 2018. A 2014 poll of FBS coaches found Army-Navy was viewed as the best tradition in college football, and none of this takes into account the money both Navy and Air Force make as members of the AAC and Mountain West Conferences, respectively. "It's a really big piece of the puzzle for us," Army athletic director Boo Corrigan told the Baltimore Sun last year. "It's very important to us financially. This is a very special game, a 'bucket list' kind of game for people."

Yeah, Army-Navy is a big deal. Photo by Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

At the same time, the dangers of football are well documented. Last year, Navy running back Will McKamey collapsed and died during a football practice; McKamey had suffered a head injury in high school relating to a burst vein that caused him to be hospitalized, and had visited multiple specialists who had cleared him to play at Navy. Given that service academy attendees are already putting themselves in harm's way for their country, why expose them to unnecessary risks?

While all FBS schools face issues of safety when it comes to football, the service academies have an additional reason to consider the risks of traumatic brain injuries. Such injuries, largely the result of blasts from improvised explosive devices, are the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they figure to remain a major problem in an age of anti-terror and counterinsurgency combat. Current scientific research suggests that brain damage is cumulative and compounding—that is, the more times the brain is battered, the worse the eventual health outcomes, with head blows and blast waves absorbed at a young age being particularly dangerous. In exposing future officers to repeated hits to the head on the football field, the service academies may be making those young men more vulnerable to future battlefield damage.

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Given that football doesn't teach any "crucial lifesaving skill," as Cantu put it, is it possible that as our knowledge of head trauma grows, the risks of the sport could someday outweigh the rewards?

People have opinions about Army-Navy. Photo by Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

It still seems improbable, given the place Army-Navy has come to occupy within the culture of the military, and within the culture of college football itself, that football would be discontinued at the service academies. That's not to say that the programs are without critics, though, even within the institutions themselves. In 2014, Dwight S. Mears, then an assistant professor of history at West Point, published an op-ed in the Washington Post headlined, "West Point Is Placing Too Much Emphasis on Football."

"Does it really matter to America's soldiers whether West Point had a winning football record?" Mears wrote, responding to West Point superintendent Robert Caslen's consideration of institutional changes in order to improve the program. "And why is football the only sport with this analogy to combat?"

One source Mears cited in his column was Carved from Granite: West Point Since 1902, a book written by military historian Lance Betros that is largely critical of the role of football at West Point. Contacted by VICE Sports, Betros declined to elaborate further, but in his book, he cites the academy's admission director from 1995 to 2008, who said, "I have never had a non-football player candidate ask me what the record of the Army football team was. Kids want to come here because of the academics, the leadership training, and the desire to be army officers…. They don't come here because it's a great party school or a school that has a winning football tradition. They don't care about that."

There are enough people who do care that is difficult to imagine a college football world without the Army-Navy game. Amid all the obvious rewards, however, the risks may continue to grow.