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Football and concussions

I’m a big fan of Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins. Unlike her colleague Michael Wilbon, she was willing to expose the utter incompetence of Michael Jordan as a sports executive during the time he ran the Washington Wizards. So I was willing to be convinced when I saw her column this morning defending Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach who was fired for punishing a player for sitting out practice after incurring a concussion.

But I have to say that she lost me in the first paragraph.  It read: “Texas Tech Coach Mike Leach has lost his job and his reputation because he didn't treat the subject of concussions with the appropriate cringing political correctness, or the son of an influential TV star with enough soft deference. You can hear the sound of a railroading in Lubbock, and it's not coming from the train station.” For me, the telltale words were “political correctness.”

I am not a big fan of the politically correct. I never thought Michael Vick should have been sent to jail for two years for promoting dog fighting, and I was happy to see him reinstated. I forgave Bobby Fischer his worst transgressions. But being worried about concussions is not political correctness. That’s like saying that being worried about smoking or obesity is political correctness. There are now several studies that show a link between concussions and degenerative brain illness, as well as premature death. 

And it’s not necessarily a matter of a single crushing hit that knocks a player unconscious – as happened earlier this year to the University of California’s star running back Jahvid Best. It’s repeated injuries occurring before the brain has been allowed to heal. And it doesn’t just happen to pro football players. It happens to college and high school players.   As my colleague Jon Chait has written in his other life as a football columnist, the link between football and brain disease poses an “existential threat” to football as a sport. Chait writes: “Millions of parents who would have let their sons play football a generation ago will no longer allow it. (If the news coverage of football and concussions had existed when I attended high school, there's no way my parents would have let me play.)”

Chait calls for prohibiting head-to-head collisions in the game by harsh penalties. My former colleague Gregg Easterbrook has crusaded repeatedly for new helmets in the  column he writes for ESPN.  But the least that can be done is for high school and college administrators not to tolerate coaches who punish kids for sitting out practice or games because of a concussion – or worst still, insist that they play. How did Cal’s football coach Ted Tedford respond to Best’s injury? Best didn’t play for the rest of the year. That hurt the team’s chances of finishing in the top-25, but it may have saved Best’s life.

Jenkins and a host of idiot bloggers  think that the Texas Tech administration railroaded Leach by firing him. In my opinion, Texas Tech did exactly the right thing.