Cantu and Nowinski Play It Safe – In the Wrong Ways (Part 1, The Boston Football Hit-Count Proposal)

There’s No Offseason in Football – Or In Educating the Public on Child Brain Injuries
February 6, 2012
How the Cult of Experts and Professionalization Is Killing Our Kids (Part 2, The Boston Football Hit-Count Proposal)
February 8, 2012

For complete info on our ebooks – DUERSON (November 2011), UPMC: Concussion Scandal Ground Zero (January 2012), and George Visger’s OUT OF MY HEAD: My Life In and Out of Football (February 2012) – see


I really wish Dr. Robert Cantu and Chris Nowinski – the media’s go-to guys on football concussions – would stop conducting their business by press conference. And I wish they would show some genuine, non-rhetorical independence from the National Football League.

Two days before the Super Bowl, Cantu and Nowinski’s Boston University research group, the Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy, and their sister advocacy organization, the Sports Legacy Institute, announced a “bold initiative” to make youth football safer. Their findings were transparently a lot less than bold. And their choice of setting, the NFL’s official media control center in Indianapolis, ensured that their proposals would be neatly folded into the NFL’s public relations counteroffensive 2.0 on traumatic brain injury – an enterprise all about buffing image and limiting legal exposure.

Of course, just because Cantu and Nowinski are establishment dudes who play the corporate game doesn’t mean that the SLI “Hit Count” White Paper is without any value. I’m sure they sincerely believe that their private interests and improved public health policy are not only overlapping, but also perhaps thoroughly consonant. Let’s take a look at what they said. The executive summary is at The full document is at

Here’s the thesis graf:

“We believe that the fastest and most effective path to safer youth sports is to regulate the amount of brain trauma that a child is allowed to incur in a season and a year. Like youth baseball has widely adopted a “Pitch Count” to protect the ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow from wear and tear, we urgently call for the development and adoption of a Hit Count to limit the frequency of repetitive brain trauma. Theoretically, a lower Hit Count would reduce the risk of concussion, risk of brain damage from sub-concussive blows, and would theoretically reduce the risk of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to repetitive brain trauma.”

Guidelines include defining a “hit,” limiting the number of hits permitted by day, week, season, and year (with all counts stratified by age), developing a “total force” threshold “when the technology is available,” and mandating days of rest for a young athlete following “a minimum brain trauma exposure.”

Like mom and apple pie, all this is close to critic-proof. If, tomorrow, 100 percent of the country’s thousands upon thousands of youth and high school football programs were to magically summon both the political will and the material means to adopt and enforce each and every one of these proposals, they would reduce the gross national football mental health toll, without a doubt. They wouldn’t do much, if anything, about the annual incidence of discrete catastrophic injuries (whose most widely accepted accounting, co-directed by Dr. Cantu, seriously lowballs the carnage, according to journalist Matt Chaney). But they would take a bite out of cumulative subconcussive injury and CTE. So in five years, or ten or 20 or 50, we could do another study and assess the “legacy” in “Sports Legacy Institute.”

I and others have a better idea: end tackle football in public high schools. (Private schools and club programs, which don’t operate with taxpayer funds, could continue to do what they do.)

Also, issue a surgeon general’s-style warning that no one under age “xx” should be strapping on delusionally protective helmets and playing a sport that inevitably and systematically involves knocking heads, with levels of bad outcomes that are both morally and economically unacceptable. Every now and then, Cantu and colleagues tip-toe to the edge of such a warning, but they seem too beholden to the NFL to issue it in plain English.

Cantu and Nowinski want to make football safer, and good for them. But there’s a difference between safer and safe. The ultimate safety here is that of their own entrenched positions.

My last observation on the White Paper, for now, is the revealing way it cites as a model the already evolving practices of Ivy League college football programs. Revealing in several ways:

– The Ivy League is the cradle of popular American football, and this echo of President Teddy Roosevelt’s early 20th century reforms there is conscious. I argue that the parallel is flawed and without relevance in today’s era of globally marketed sports and superstars.

– Nowinski and company hold up the Ivy League’s brain-trauma practices without also promoting our most esteemed academic institutions’ total “student-athlete” model. How about turning every NCAA Division 1 football program into a Division 3 program? Oh, right, that’s outside the scope of their advocacy.

– And finally, the analysis of football and concussions is assumed to rest, with definitive authority, in the hands of experts. I don’t buy that. I think there is a larger problem with sports in this country, and that is its rampant professionalization – money-wise, health-wise, and otherwise. (I deliberately didn’t say professionalism.) Thus, if the NCAA is trampling educational values, then the only solution isn’t to trim its sails but to make sure it pays its players. Did I hear someone complain that baseball’s Little League World Series exploits little kids? Well, then don’t think about eliminating the exploitation of little kids on international television – just make sure you cut them (and their moms and dads) in on the profits. Similarly, when it comes to football safety, we – parents, citizens, all of us – are being told not to worry our pretty little heads while the pros unleash “solutions” that will cost vast sums of money, which we are supposed to apply to amateur athletics without a debate over cost, proportion, or priority. More on all this in tomorrow’s post.


Irv Muchnick






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There’s No Offseason in Football – Or In Educating the Public on Child Brain Injuries

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick