Should high schools offer girls' tackle football? That's the question at the heart of a Title IX lawsuit filed last week by a group of female youth players in Utah who want their local school districts to offer the sport.
Given what we know about football's effects on the human brain, however, I'm not sure that's the question schools should be asking.
First, the suit. According to Eric Adelson of Yahoo! Sports, it's largely the brainchild of Sam Gordon—whose ball-carrying exploits as a nine-year-old in a boys' tackle football league became a viral video sensation—and her father, Brent, a lawyer who subsequently helped start a four-team girls' recreational tackle league for fifth and sixth-graders in 2015.
Sam is now 14. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she still wants to play. So do many of her teammates. Brent told Yahoo! Sports that when he reached out to the Utah High School Activities Association to ask about creating school-sponsored teams for girls, he was advised to keep building the rec league.
Hence the lawsuit. "I don't want to wait 10-15 years," Brent told Yahoo! Sports. "My daughter would be 30 years old by then. These girls want to play now."
As Adelson reports, the suit's outcome will depend on a number of factors, including whether Gordon and her fellow plaintiffs can show that there's significant community interest in girls' tackle football. And from the standpoint of gender equality, it's hard not to see this case as a potentially positive development. Equal opportunity is a worthy social goal; anything that produces more opportunities for more girls to play sports is hard to argue against, particularly as America's youth seemingly become less active and more overweight with every passing year.
And yet: we're not just talking about generic sports. We're talking, specifically, about tackle football. A sport that carries a significant—albeit fuzzily quantified—risk of producing brain damage, both acute and chronic.
Adelson writes that many sports can cause concussions. This is true. But other sports generally do not involve getting hit in the head over and over and over the way tackle football does; medical and scientific research increasingly suggests that repetitive sub-concussive blows also are bad for the brain, producing a cumulative and compounding negative effect. Moreover, football's head-banging violence isn't accidental, nor something that can be eliminated with rules changes and tackling technique tweaks. It's inherent to the sport, which is less akin to hockey or soccer than boxing.
Last year, I wrote about Russell Davis, a Las Vegas resident who was believed to be the first school board candidate in the U.S. to run on a platform of banning high school football. Davis lost in the Clark County, Nevada primaries. That didn't come as a shock. His idea undoubtedly would strike many people—probably the vast majority of people who care about prep sports in the first place—as, well, crazy.
But is it? The more I listened to Davis—and the more I dug into the topic, talking to brain trauma researchers, bioethicists, and others—the more it sounded reasonable. Even preferable. One discussion in particular, with Purdue University researcher Tom Talavage, stuck with me:
In 2009, Purdue University researchers studying an Indiana prep football team found that over the course of a ten-week season, players absorbed as many as 1,855 head hits of magnitudes up to 289 Gs—that is, 289 times the force of gravity, or nearly three times as forcefully as a dummy hits the windshield in a 25-mile-per-hour car crash. They also discovered that while athletes diagnosed with concussions performed poorly on cognitive tests and showed signs of dysfunction on functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of their brains—which was expected—a number of athletes who had not been diagnosed showed similar signs of impairment. "They looked just as bad or worse as the concussed kids," says Tom Talavage, a biomedical engineering professor at Purdue. "At that point, [one of my colleagues] asked if we were ready for the fact that we might have to kill football." Subsequent studies by Talavage's group and others have produced similar findings.
Davis never suggested to me that youth tackle football should be banned. He's a football fan, someone who was genuinely excited about the prospect of the Oakland Raiders moving to Las Vegas. (By now, I'm guessing he has season tickets). Davis coaches his children's soccer teams; he wasn't trying to ensconce America's kids in bubble wrap. He simply looked at the available data, weighed tackle football's risks and rewards, and concluded that the sport doesn't have a place in public schools. Not when the mission of those schools is to protect and nurture young minds—as opposed to harming them—and not when taxpayer dollars are being spent to underwrite a potential public health problem.
Maybe you agree. Maybe you don't. Most likely, you probably haven't thought about it, nor learned enough to have a truly informed opinion. That's understandable. Public debate over the brain danger of tackle football largely has been confined to the National Football League and pee-wee levels; the high school game (and college, too) has more or less flown under our collective radar. But as more studies are published and the brain becomes less of a scientific mystery, that figures to change. The risks will become less fuzzy. Sooner or later, we're all going to be grappling with the same ethical, financial, and medical concerns that prompted Davis to run for office.
And that brings me back to Gordon's suit. Again, equality is terrific. And sports are a valuable part of what public high schools offer to their students. But at what cost? And to whom? Should schools offer tackle football to girls? I'm not sure they should offer it to anyone.