The challenge of violence in sport

Nicholas Wright and John Bell

A few weeks ago, I (N.W.) attended the first half of the Williams-Middlebury football game. It was my first viewing of a Williams football game since my undergraduate days in the 1950s, and it was quite a different experience. My co-author (J.B.), more knowledgeable of athletic culture and having also attended more recent football games, agrees. Cars were parked everywhere, but neither tailgating nor alcohol — nor even the traditional concealed flask — was permitted. No dogs wandered across the field. There were no cheerleaders or funky band and very few undergraduate fans. Most spectators seemed to be older alums, often with their families. The playing of the national anthem was observed with a scratchy broadcast recording.

At least an hour before game time, all 65 or so dressed members of each team (a larger team than we remember) conducted non-contact practice exercises on each end of the pristine artificial turf field. At irregular intervals, commands would be barked out in Marine-style drill tones. During the game, fans booed perceived referee calls in favor of Middlebury, even when it was impossible to see the play accurately at a far corner of the field. Some suited but nonplaying members of the team seemed to have been designated to wave to fans that it was time to stomp on the bleachers, apparently to prevent teams from hearing signaled plays. I did not see this lack of sportsmanship in the 1950s.

Altogether, the picture of Williams football — and possibly other varsity and club sports at the College — today is highly specialized and professionalized, a far cry from the 1950s, and by all accounts of less interest to the general student body than formerly. We speak now of programs rather than sport. In the 1950s, there was much discussion of the aims of sport, with frequent reference to the Roman poet Juvenal, who said that participating in sport should lead to a sound mind in a sound body: Mens sana in corpore sano. The idea of “being all you can be” or “pushing yourself to your limits” did not attract much attention then. It would do well to remember that during the 1934-1937 Dennett presidency, the Athletic Department was renamed the Department of Health and Athletics.

Where is health as we continue to lurch toward unsound minds in unsound bodies while subverting the principles of good health? Does the emergence of sports medicine as a medical specialty suggest that our games are more violent than earlier?

While there are no data over time to answer this question reliably, current data suggest a significant burden among athletes of serious, acute injury to ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and head, especially in football. For example, we know that acute tissue damage from concussive and sub-concussive head blows release proteins into the bloodstream. That two of these proteins, UCHL1 and GFAP, are designated biomarkers for brain damage in a new screening test advertised by Abbott Laboratories will not relieve concern for the health of our athletes. Even more concerning, however, is the gathering evidence that cumulative concussions and sub-concussive blows are responsible for neurodegenerative conditions 10 to 30 years down the road.

Some have argued that current training and conditioning programs protect athletes from injury. Others think that this preparation, plus larger-sized bodies moving at faster speeds, plus more competitive spirit, may simply make for more aggressive and damaging play. The answer to some of these concerns may lie in the NESCAC health surveillance data, or special NESCAC studies of the safety of “return to play” after injury and, critically important to an educational institution, “return to learn” protocols. Where are these studies? Reliable information on surveillance data and special studies within NESCAC have been very hard to come by. A page dealing with athletics in the Strategic Plan for Williams reminds us yet again of the College’s success at obtaining the Director’s Cup, but does not connect this success to any of the objectives that follow, such as the promotion of health later in life. All that said, however, the need for greater integration of athletics into college life is recognized in the plan.

A list of the claimed benefits of athletic participation is acknowledged, although clearly the fulfilment of many of these goals might be achieved by participation in non-athletic activities, or arguably through sports with lower levels of violence. It is disappointing that the plan does not touch on the pressing issue of sport violence and the kind of steps NESCAC might take to lower the current health risks significantly.

Finally, we ask two questions: What does violent and professionalized sport contribute to the liberal arts curriculum at Williams? Do we need the grim spectacle of a severe injury (it will be called an “accident”) on some NESCAC playing field to force a serious and comprehensive policy review of athletics at Williams?

John Bell ’63, a football captain in 1959 and 1962, is a retired businessman living in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Nicholas Wright ’57 is a retired medical epidemiologist living in Williamstown, Mass.