Editor’s note: Blake Rutherford, the author of this guest commentary, is a vice-president with Little Rock-based The McLarty Companies.
When I set foot on the Middlebury College campus in the Champlain Valley in Vermont, I was a long way from major college football. Middlebury is a Division III school and a member of the New England Small College Athletic Conference. It doesn’t offer athletic scholarships; the football team plays eight games and does not have a post-season.
At Middlebury, as with any other school, athletics open the door for students who believe that playing a sport is necessary to their collegiate experience. There are obvious benefits. Sports enhance the socialization process, help to relieve stress, and aid in the development of leadership skills, all of which have utility in post-college life.
This was true for my uncle, John Churchill, who was raised in Little Rock and played football at Hall High School. After graduation, John attended Rhodes College, then Southwestern, in Memphis. There he was a bright star: an accomplished student and a stand-out linebacker. He won a prestigious Rhodes scholarship, and after attending Oxford, received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale. John had a long and distinguished career as a professor and dean at Hendrix College before becoming Secretary of Phi Beta Kappa, the leading advocate for excellence in the liberal arts and sciences, a position he still holds.
I thought about him when Hendrix announced two years ago that it would make a return to football. That time has come; the Warriors kicked off their inaugural season in Division III on September 7 against Westminster College.
Earlier this year, a former Hendrix rival, Lyon College in Batesville, announced that it would offer football to its students, making it the only NAIA school in Arkansas to do so. The Scots will play their first game in 2015.
My grandfather, a lifelong Batesville native, is a graduate of Lyon née Arkansas College. He lives a few blocks from campus and fondly remembers their football days. Brooks Blevins, in his book Lyon College 1872-2002: The Perseverance and Promise of an Arkansas College, wrote, “Of particular delight to the Arkansas College student body was the annual match with Hendrix.” In 1929, a student at the time opined, “The World Series, student activities, and certainly study pales into insignificance besides [sic] the bitterly contested Bulldog [Hendrix] – Panther [Arkansas College] game.”
Rex Nelson is an authority on all-things Arkansas, but especially politics, food, and football. In a recent piece for The Sporting Life on this subject, he noted, “At many liberal arts schools, the male-female ratio has become skewed with the percentage of female students often topping 60 percent. The sudden injection of dozens of new male students to play football addresses that gender gap. It also can add diversity at schools with low numbers of black students. Studies also show that male students – even those who don’t play – prefer to attend colleges with football programs.”
There is more to it, of course. Because athletic scholarships are not offered, students must be admitted on academic merit. Season schedules and practices are constructed in a manner least likely to interfere with classroom work. This has had a positive effect. Many Division III schools report that the grade point averages of athletes are higher than non-athletes. Graduation rates are higher, too.
But greater scrutiny is being applied to the game. There is concern that football players who have sustained repetitive hits to the head are more likely to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to dementia, memory loss and depression. CTE has long been associated with boxing, but in 2005 it was found in the brain of a football player. More recently, the National Institutes of Health determined that Junior Seau, the all-pro linebacker who committed suicide in May, suffered from CTE. Research is in its infancy, however, and the NCAA and the NFL have both committed significant funding for more work. Recently, the NFL’s decided to dedicate $765 million over twenty years to resolve prolonged litigation over the issue of head injuries, which included benefits to injured players and more research.
In broader terms, college football is much safer than it was forty years ago. According to the “Annual Survey of Football Injury Research: 1931-2012,” the number of fatalities directly related to football has decreased. In 1968 there were 36; in 2012 there were zero. Enhanced equipment, rule changes, thorough medical examinations, and improved coaching techniques have led to this, and recent amendments, including a rule allowing for the immediate ejection for any college player who targets the head or neck area of the ball carrier, are even more encouraging.
Malcolm Gladwell is a best-selling author who writes books about trends. A few weeks ago I was in an airport and saw him on “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” on CNN. Not long ago he assailed the University of Pennsylvania of the Ivy League for offering football, a sport he believes should be banned, in a speech that made the rounds on YouTube.
In that television interview, he described football pugnaciously as an “inhumane spectacle.” As it pertained to the cultural life on the Penn campus, for example, he said, “If Penn needs football to buttress its culture then it has the wrong culture.” Finally, in a fit of elitist hysteria, he decried that no institution with a serious academic mission should support football.
America’s most distinguished academic institutions, Harvard and Yale, have played football since 1875. Because the Ivy League, like the NESCAC, does not participate in post-season play, this rivalry, known as The Game, is played on the final Saturday of the season. In 2011, Harvard beat Yale en route to a 9-1 record and a conference championship. That same season, a Harvard player, Baltazar Zavala, won a Rhodes scholarship.
There is an element of risk-taking in all forms of athletic activity, including competitive sports. But consider that the American Association of Neurological Surgeons determined that cycling accidents played a role in 86,000 of the 447,000 sports-related head injuries treated in emergency rooms in 2009. Football accounted for 47,000 injuries and baseball for 38,394. To avoid the potential dangers, does that mean we should ban bicycles on college campuses? Or baseball?
Of course it does not.
Hendrix and Lyon want to continue to attract smart students and diversify their campuses. Football, with its popularity and rich history, is another way of doing that. Let us hope it succeeds, and that a safe and sustained rivalry of old renews.