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Out Of Bounds: High Schools Should Ban Football


There's been plenty of discussion about head injuries in professional football, new equipment, new lawsuits and new rules as well. Inevitably, the conversation came to include high schools, most prominently when a school board member in - near Philadelphia proposed to end the football program. There's also been, sometimes, angry pushback. Last month, the discussion opened again in Dover, New Hampshire.

We'll talk with Paul Butler, a retired surgeon and school board member there, in just a moment. And we want to hear about the talk where you live or where your kids go to school. Give us a call: 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Paul Butler joins us now by phone from his home in Delaware.

Nice of you to join us today.

PAUL BUTLER: Well, thank you for having me.

CONAN: And you said something interesting to the school board there, that if the city does not end football at Dover High, the lawyers will do it for us. Are there any lawsuits pending that you know of?

BUTLER: Not that I'm aware of, and I probably misspoke. I probably should've said either the lawyers or the insurance companies probably will do it for us.

CONAN: And why do you think that?

BUTLER: Well, I'm worried that insurance will - the premiums will become so expensive, that it'll be awfully difficult to both educate the children and also pay the premiums for the potential problems that might be coming down the line. And the reason I'm so worried about this is that in the past 10 years, there's been very well-done research that has indicated that repetitive head trauma is not good for our brains, especially for the brains of children, the developing brain. The brain continues to develop up until - about the time we're 18. And we probably reach our maximal intellectual function sometime around 26 or 27. But the actual structure of the brain actually continues to grow until we're about 18.

CONAN: Now, you played football in high school and college. Did your brain suffer?


BUTLER: Some of my friends would certainly say that it did. Who knows? You know, I'm still functional. I'm 68. I still think I can think. I'm not as sharp as I was 20 years ago, but I'm not sure may 68-year-olds are. I had many hits to the head. I don't remember ever getting knocked out. I had a number of times playing football in which I had, of course, my bell rung, or I was dazed. I also played hockey in high school and college and continue to play hockey now, although I think if you watched me play, you wouldn't think it looked like hockey. It's a pretty slow game.

CONAN: Glacial hockey, perhaps, yes.

BUTLER: Glacial hockey, right.


CONAN: And that's one of the criticisms, I'm sure you've heard it. There are a lot of other sports besides football where head injuries are not uncommon, hockey among them.

BUTLER: That's right. And the injuries can be tremendous in any of these other games, especially when the speeds that are reached in hockey with pucks and sticks and ice can collide. The difference for me - the reason I'm picking on football is that football is the only game in which we use our head as a battering ram and as a spear. And I know it's not taught that way these days, but if you watch a game on any given Saturday or Sunday, you can't help but see it happening over and over again, no matter how well athletes are being taught to tackle with their heads up. It just does not happen.

And, of course, the youth football players and the high school football players watch the college and professionals play, and it's either that emulation or the exuberance of youth or the invincibility of youth or the invincibility of having a great, big helmet on your head. But when you are the last guy that's going to tackle the ball carrier, and he's trying to make that first down or that touchdown and it's up to you to stop him, I think that a lot of the teaching of safe technique goes out the window. So it's hard for me to believe that the safe tackling technique and safe blocking technique is really making a big difference.

CONAN: What was the reaction when you first floated this idea?

BUTLER: Oh, it's very interesting. You know, I don't know if you can imagine. Dover is a town of about 30,000 people. School board meetings are attended by school board members and the superintendent, the business manager and a few principals, and not many other people, except during budget season. They're televised. There was absolutely no reaction, not one word. I brought it up with permission. I had mentioned it before the school board meeting.

We had a non-public meeting, and I had mentioned to the superintendent and the other members of the school board that I was concerned about the danger of football, and I wanted to bring it up and ask if it would be appropriate to bring it up at a section of the school board agenda that's called school board matters of interest. And they said yes, and so I did.

As soon as I finished giving my little talk about it, which lasted about five minutes, another member of the school board had another matter of interest that she discussed, and then that was discussed. No comment on either one. And then the next item was adjournment. We adjourned, and from my recollection, there was not a word in the halls on the way out about it, either.

So I was quite surprised that, the next morning, the headline on the local newspaper was about this, because I didn't even know that there was a reporter in the audience. I could see only maybe two or three people in the audience that were people other than principals or school board members.

CONAN: So...

BUTLER: I was very surprised. And then what was even more surprising to me was that morning - this was Monday night that I mentioned it - Tuesday morning, my wife and I drove down to Boston. And by the time we reached Boston, we had three or four phone calls from local Boston news media, others who wanted to interview me. And then it went, you know, all over the country.

I think the reason it went so quickly and so far and still has legs is because there's a lot of unease out there about the dangers of football, and specifically the brain. You know, the brain is who we are. It's not just our cognition and our executive function, our intelligence. It's our emotions. It's our hopes and dreams. It's every - you know, it's everything that we are. And if you damage that when you're 13 or 14 or 16, it's going to be a lifelong problem for you.

CONAN: We want to hear about what's going on with the discussion about head injuries in football at your school, or where your kids go to school. 800-989-8255. Email: Let's start with - this is Susan, Susan with us from Kansas City.

SUSAN: Hi. We aren't having the discussion at a high school level. We did have it at a middle school level, and it has stopped, but not for the reasons of health, which are important, but for the reasons of cost. The football program in a little school does not bring in a lot of cash. It costs the school.

And when you don't have enough textbooks for kids, it seems silly to me that you should divert money to something else, especially something where almost everyone I know that's graduated from high school can remember somebody suffering either spinal cord or head injury during their time at the high school.

CONAN: But you're saying, at the middle school level, it's been stopped because of fiscal problems.

SUSAN: Yeah.

CONAN: All right. And I have to say, Paul Butler, that was among the arguments you brought up there in New Hampshire.

BUTLER: That's right.

CONAN: And specifically on the textbooks, I think you would agree.

BUTLER: Absolutely. Not just textbooks, but teachers' salaries. You know, I would like to be paying our teachers a lot more than neighboring towns so that we can have the very best and the brightest. I mean, our job is to try to educate these children, and not only does football cost money, but it also costs valuable time away from the class.

If a youngster has a concussion, currently the treatment is not to let him think for two weeks or so. So he has no homework, no schoolwork. He's not supposed to be on the computer. He's supposed to just sit idly for two weeks.

And I would say that the science of detecting concussions, especially subclinical concussions, is very, very fuzzy. It's very difficult to know exactly when it's safe for a child to go back to full contact in football.

And apparently, from what I'm reading, the second-impact syndrome is really what's critically dangerous. In other words, if a child has a subclinical concussion, doesn't come out of the game, doesn't tell the coach that he's been dazed, and then has another concussion, subclinical or a detectable one on top of that, that apparently is extremely dangerous for a youngster.

I was just reading recently about a young man who was the captain of the football team at University of Pennsylvania, and he committed suicide. His brain was sent to the BU brain center.

CONAN: Where much of the research has been done, yes.

BUTLER: That's right. They found CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. They found the tauopathy. And his mother, this football player's mother, said that he - she had seen every one of his games in high school and college. He never had a concussion that she knew about.

CONAN: Hmm. Susan...

BUTLER: So it's really frightening to me.

SUSAN: As an emergency room RN, part of our discharge information that we give people who have potential concussions is that it may take as long as a year to recover from the cognitive and the mood issues that they will feel.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Susan.

SUSAN: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Let's see. We go next to - this is Fabian, Fabian with us from Oakland.

FABIAN: Hey. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

FABIAN: I honestly believe this argument doesn't factor in low-income students or individuals that use football to get to college. A lot of these players won't go to college and won't get a degree if football is taken off the curriculum. I think this - the idea of stopping football is kind of ludicrous because you just alienate a large numbers of students. And where does it stop? You know, does it stop when - would it transcend to swimming? There a lot of shoulder injuries in swimming. Would it transcend to (technical difficulties)? It's just - I think you have to factor in that a lot of people used football to get out of the ghetto. And I'll take my response off the air.

CONAN: All right, Fabian, thanks very much. And I think we talked about hockey and head injuries in hockey. Shoulder injuries in swimming, I don't think are analogous. But his point about going on to college, Paul Butler, I think you've said your football prowess in high school enabled you to go to college.

BUTLER: Well, I think it probably gave me a leg up, or at least allowed the admissions people to take a look at me. I went to a college that was very competitive, and they easily could have taken every - they could have filled the class - the classes were 240. They could have filled the class with valedictorians. I was not a valedictorian. And so I suspect that my extracurricular activities certainly allowed somebody on the admissions committee to take a look at me.

I would say to that gentleman that just called, football is a great game. I still like to watch it. I still like it very much. It helped me tremendously as a youngster developing the hard work and the team work and the repetitive practice, the self-sacrifice. All that translated to the classroom for me. It, you know, made me understand that if I worked hard, I could accomplish something in any area.

My argument is that you can get those same benefits from other activities, from other sports, from band, from debate club, from math club. You can get those - all those benefits, without risking your brain, from some other activities. And as far as getting out of the ghetto and ending up getting a college education is concerned, if there was no football at all, I think that some of those youngsters in the ghetto would be playing basketball, or concentrating more in basketball or soccer or other games that might also help them to get a leg up getting into college.

CONAN: Paul Butler is a school board member in Dover, New Hampshire. He proposed a ban on high school football at high school level after reading more and more about the problems caused by head injuries. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And Rachel's on the line, Rachel with us from Dallas.

RACHEL: Hi, there.


RACHEL: Good afternoon. I'm a mother of two teenage boys, both who played rugby and football. My comment is not based on the actual sports, per se, but my oldest has had two concussions this year. And I'd like to comment on something, and this is fact more than comment. He attended - he went to the ER. He was knocked unconscious, went to the ER. They - he have to - by mandate in Texas, you cannot return to school until you have been checked out by a concussion doctor now. It's law. He had a baseline test done, which they do every September in school. His baseline testing was done. He then went to Children's Medical Center to see the concussion doc. He went from 100th percentile cognitive ability to the 49th percentile in 24 hours.

CONAN: Oh, my gosh.

RACHEL: The first week, I called the doctor. I said, I know I'm not going crazy. My 16-year-old son was horrible. His mood - everything was terrible. He spent six weeks of inactivity, like your guest is talking about. And I - again, I love the sport. I just wanted to comment on the effects of them. I'm not anti either of them. I love that I have boys that are into sports, but it is very real. I've seen it. I have had numerous visits to Children's Medical over this year with concussion, and I have seen it.

The other thing that's hugely important that people are not talking about is reaction time. They did a test on their reaction time. Walking around, he's fine. But as a 16-year-old, almost 17-year-old this week, they told him he cannot drive. It could be the difference between stopping at a red light and going through the red light.

CONAN: Rachel, did his cognitive abilities improve over those six weeks?

RACHEL: Yes. He thankfully - I'm quite a stiff - a tough mom. I don't really care what everybody else says. I care what the doctor says. They went to medical school, not me. And when I have a degree, then I'll argue with them, but not yet. And so he was very persuasive to just not focus on computers. He had to wear sunglasses. He was affected by light. He was getting frequent headaches. But he thought he was still fine. But thankfully, we just trusted what the doctor said and kept going. They monitored - in Children's, he kept getting his testing done. And he went way back up into the 98th percentile, eventually back up into the 100th percentile.

CONAN: That's good to hear. But - well, I am sorry to cut you off...

RACHEL: Yeah. Go ahead.

CONAN: ...but we wanted to ask one more question before we ran out of time, and that is: Will you let him resume those games that you and he both love?

RACHEL: You know what? We don't actually have a choice. He's had two. Law says if he has a third one, he's not allowed to resume, anyway. So - in Texas now. So they're not allowed to, because of, as your guest says, secondary - the syndrome and the danger the doctor said is prior to the age of 23 is when damage is done, not after it.

CONAN: That's what we're hearing from Paul Butler as well. Rachel, thanks very much, and I'm glad your son's doing better.

RACHEL: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And, Paul Butler, are you going to propose this? We just have a few very seconds left. Are you going to table this and bring it to a vote?

BUTLER: Yes, I will. I - there's been some pressure on me at the school board level to bring it to a vote quickly. And I'm not willing to do that, because it took me quite a while to come to this conclusion, because I resisted it so much, because I like the game so much and it helped me so much. So I'm going to try to give the school board about six months or a year to try to get it figured out. I'll keep sending them literature, and by this time next year, I will bring it to a head. My school board term ends in December of 2013. I'm not running again, not because of this issue. I just decided when I ran that I would give it one term. And so I'll bring it to a head. I'll bring it to a vote by December of 2013.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

BUTLER: Thank you for asking me.

CONAN: Paul Butler, member of the school board in Dover, New Hampshire. Tomorrow, with the holiday season upon us, we'll take a look at the retail scourge: shoplifting. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.