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Harvard EdCast: Friday Night Lights Out

By Jill Anderson on September 19, 2018 8:10 AM
With evidence mounting that tackle football can have lasting, negative effects on children's brains, is it unethical for schools to continue their programs?

High school football game

In just one season, high school football players can sustain 1800 blows to the head, says educational ethicist Randall Curren, with nearly half suffering brain injury or cognitive impairment. Knowing this, Curren wonders, how can schools ethically continue to support tackle football, a sport that has such potential to undermine academic and life success? His conclusion: They can't.

In a conversation recorded for the Harvard EdCast — and coinciding with a new report from the Aspen Institute on the dangers of youth football — Curren argues that it's ethically indefensible for schools to sponsor tackle football. He and co-author J.C. Blokhuis detailed that argument in “Friday Night Lights Out: The End of Foodball in Schools,” an essay published in the Harvard Educational Review.

“You have a quarter million high school players impaired and engaging in learning — which is the schools' job. [Yet] you have the school sponsoring an activity that’s directly undermining the basic educational mission of the schools,” Curren says.

Curren acknowledges the counterarguments, including how football builds character and teaches teamwork, but, he says, the risks clearly outweigh any potential rewards, even for those talented enough to continue the sport beyond high school.

“Of the million plus students, about 250 will ultimately be recruited to the NFL. That’s about 250 out of a million compared with 250,000 who we have reason to believe will suffer cognitive impairment,” Curren says. “That’s a 1,000 times greater odds of being impaired than having a career of any duration. Those are horrible odds.”

About the Harvard EdCast

The Harvard EdCast is a weekly podcast featuring brief conversations with education leaders and innovative thinkers from across the country and around the world. Hosted by Jill Anderson, the EdCast is a dynamic space for discourse about problems and transformative solutions in education, shining a light on the compelling people, policies, practices, and ideas shaping the field. Find the EdCast on iTunes, Soundcloud, and Stitcher