Cal football revenue shouldn’t come at the cost of its student-athletes

CAMPUS ISSUES: Cal football players deserve to be protected from the long-term health risks their sport exposes them to

Cal Football player and opposing team player clash on the field
Alexander Hong/Staff

This weekend, millions of people across the country will tune in to watch the Super Bowl. But in their celebration, Americans often overlook just how detrimental the sport can be to athletes.

Football players are at a high risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE — a degenerative disease that results from repeated trauma to the head. CTE can lead to depression, suicidal behavior, motor impairments, decreased cognitive functions and progressive dementia. These are threats to physical and mental well-being that no one should be forced to confront on a daily basis.

And yet, a 2011 study discovered CTE in all but one of the 111 brains of deceased NFL players that were examined.

As a Division I football team, UC Berkeley is far from immune to this issue. Student-athletes in football also face dangerous risks of head contact — in addition to balancing the pressures of academic and extracurricular activities.

In an interview with The Daily Californian’s editorial board, recently hired Cal Athletics Director Jim Knowlton stated that research into “the safety of helmets” was a key component to tackling CTE. On top of that, Berkeley scientists at Brainguard are creating a new helmet to help protect sports players from brain injuries. But new equipment won’t prevent violence on the field.

Protective gear, while necessary, can give football players a false sense of security about their physical well-being. According to a 2011 presentation made to a committee of the U.S. Senate, concussion prevention is far more aligned with concrete efforts to reduce collision impact than with the use of equipment. Increasing protective wear is a Band-Aid solution to a much bigger problem — rules that encourage violence and aggression.

Football is a key source of revenue for the campus athletic department, but should this money really come at the cost of its students’ welfare? Last year, researchers at UC Berkeley found that just one season of high school football can induce changes to brain structure. Student-athletes — especially those on Division I teams — deserve to be protected from the long-term risks associated with the sport they dedicate their college career to.

Knowlton emphasized in his interview that one of his priorities as Cal’s athletic director is providing student-athletes with “an incredible and exceptional athletic and academic experience” and growth both on and off the field. But this goal, while noble, can’t be reconciled with the safety risks that football players expose themselves to every time they are on the field.

Sure, the rules and regulations surrounding football go far beyond Cal, and the NCAA has revised rules regarding targeting and kickoffs to lower injury risk, but there’s still much the campus can do. A significant percentage of the revenue from football games — Cal’s most lucrative sport — should go toward CTE research and support for the players who are most likely to develop it.

If the campus truly wants to support its athletes, it needs to prove it.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.