Rethinking Davidson Football

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The viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Davidson College.

As the son of a high school football coach, I literally grew up in a football locker room. I’ve also been around Davidson football for almost half a century. My introduction occurred in 1969, when my brother, Greg, enrolled at Davidson as a recruited quarterback. Greg regaled me with Davidson football stories, particularly of the 1969 Tangerine Bowl team, featuring the likes of Davidson legends such as Gordon Slade, Mike Mikolayunas and coach Homer Smith.

Upon arriving at Davidson in 1975 as a scholarship basketball player, I quickly befriended many football players and attended all of the home games. In the spring, I’d regularly train with the football team during their spring conditioning workouts, ascending stadium steps and running various, seemingly endless sprints at Richardson Field. After grad school, I spent three years at the NCAA and six years as associate commissioner of the football-crazed Southeastern Conference. Along the way, I have contemplated, researched and written about the role of athletics in our culture and our educational system.

In short, for my entire life, I have been involved in and focused on the athletic system nationally and Davidson in particular. No one believes in the value of Davidson athletics and its potential to change lives more than I do. I’ve lived it. But, as much as I love Davidson athletics, I love Davidson College more.

Facing Challenges

One of Davidson’s greatest strengths is its ability to adjust to a changing world. There are two examples, in particular, illustrating that ability and are instructive in rethinking Davidson football. The first is the decision in 1972 to admit women. Despite tremendous community angst and push-back from many influential alumni, some claiming it would lead to the demise of the college itself, President Sam Spencer drove the change through. Davidson not only survived, it thrived. We now have a powerful female president.

The second relates to the men’s basketball program. From the mid-1960’s through the mid-1970’s Davidson was a perennial top 20 team. But for reasons too lengthy to outline here, by the mid-1970’s, everything relating to college basketball—the recruitment process, program budgets and the rapid racial integration of the game—was changing dramatically. The result was that for a school like Davidson it became exceedingly difficult to continue to appear regularly in the top 20. Regardless, those expectations continued. The result was that the relationship between the basketball program and the institution’s larger educational mission slipped out of balance.

It took a decade of multiple coaching changes, program turmoil and disappointing records for the Davidson community to adjust expectations to more reasonably fit the new environment and realities of major college basketball. While it is unlikely that Davidson will again be a perennial fixture in the top 20, our basketball program is one of the finest and most successful in the nation as it relates to the effectiveness with which it contributes to the mission of the institution. Davidson is one of the last institutions in the country where a young person can play Division I basketball and still be a true student. That is powerful.

In both cases, the Davidson community recognized, debated and adjusted to changing environmental realities to refocus and re-imagine itself. We have demonstrated that we can evolve to meet changing environments that demand difficult decisions and courageous action and that Davidson will thrive as a result.

We now face another difficult institutional challenge.

American higher education is experiencing a period of tremendous turmoil. Increasing educational expectations, stagnant resources, difficult to afford tuition costs and heavy student debt has lead to increasing public skepticism regarding the cost and value of a traditional college education. Similarly, football’s role within our educational system and society is being scrutinized and questioned as never before, largely the result of increased awareness of the link between football and brain damage. Given this rapidly changing environment, we would be well served to have an open, honest examination and discussion of what role football should play in the future of the college. Specifically, whether it remains effective in contributing to institutional mission in relevant and timely ways.

The Search for Truth

While the rightful place in academia of football’s culture and inherent violence has always been debated, the issue that may tip the balance in the national discussion is the rapidly accumulating evidence of the connection between tackle football and brain trauma. The general football community struggles to make the case that the game can be made to be suitably safe, but there is little empirical evidence that the various mechanisms being undertaken to reduce impact on the brain are adequate. Even if the impact can be dialed down 10, 20 or even 50 percent, only time will tell if this is adequate to eliminate brain damage. In the meantime, can we truly justify allowing Davidson students to continue to play? How many will develop CTE while the science slowly accumulates?

While sports such as soccer and field hockey are struggling with the same concerns, it is easier to foresee how safety precautions can be successfully implemented. Football, on the other hand, is a gladiatorial sport. There is no other sport that has, as a fundamental aspect of play, violent, continuous, debilitating collisions. Does it square with Davidson’s values and mission to sponsor and celebrate an activity that research tells us is profoundly dangerous? This is no longer about sprained ankles and broken bones; this is about damage to the organ that makes us human. Should Davidson College be in the brain trauma business?

While the issue of brain trauma should be front and center, there are additional factors to consider. For example, Davidson has justified football in that the lessons learned on the playing field instill character traits that prepare our students for lives of leadership and service. While that may be true, football is not unique in its ability to instill those attributes. There are plenty of other sports that do the same without the significant risk of brain trauma. Davidson will continue to provide students a meaningful athletic experience, whether club or intercollegiate, without football.

Another justification is that football is an effective activity around which to conduct events that bring alumni back to campus. Again, while that may be true, it is clear that football’s impact in this regard has been declining for years as attendance at games continues to lag. Football is not nearly as central a part of campus life as in the past. This won’t change with a few extra wins. If the potential loss of a campus rallying activity is a concern, we can identify and prioritize other activities, events and sports around which to celebrate all things Davidson.

It is also argued that football at Davidson is an effective tool to recruit minority men to campus. The question is whether this is the most effective vehicle through which Davidson can accomplish that worthy goal. Perhaps the institutional resources devoted to each football player, coupled with the resources of The Davidson Trust, could yield minority students who are a good fit for Davidson equally as well.

We must consider the financial data regarding football. When facilities, coaching staff, insurance and travel costs are fully allocated, football becomes a very expensive sport. In the future, that profile may worsen considerably if legal liabilities spiral.

This leads to the issue of “educational opportunity costs.” Would the amount of institutional educational expenditures appropriated to football be better spent on other programs, services or initiatives that are more central to the academic mission of the institution? For example, would those resources be better spent on improving science labs or campus wi-fi, hiring a world-class faculty member or even our other sports teams to help them become more competitive in the Atlantic-10 conference? At what point do the educational opportunity costs associated with football become too great?

Perhaps most important, are we making decisions and establishing priorities based on myths? For example, is it really true that restructuring football’s relationship to the institution will adversely impact alumni giving and support? Perhaps such a change would actually attract additional academically oriented donors? Or, will we carry on with a program simply because a declining number of alumni might raise a fuss or because we’ve always done it that way?

Finally, do we know what our primary institutional constituents opinions are regarding the fit of football at Davidson? Or, do we simply assume we know how supportive (or not) the Davidson community is of football and its costs? Perhaps some surveying of the community could provide valuable input.

One of the most basic values of Davidson College is a commitment to the search for truth. But finding the truth is the easy part. The challenge is mustering the courage and community will to go to where the logic, truth and data lead. What if we find that football no longer makes sense as applied to the institutional mission of Davidson College in the 21st century? What as responsible alumni, administrators, faculty and students, do we do? Are we willing to go where the truth and data take us?

An Opportunity to Lead

Tackle football is not going anywhere soon. The game is entertaining and a part of our nation’s cultural fabric and will continue to be so for years to come, particularly at the professional level. But our society’s view of the rightful place for certain entertainments can and does change when safety concerns are exposed. Recall that that in the early 1900’s, boxing was one of America’s most popular sports and was sponsored by the NCAA until 1961. Once upon a time, cigarettes were glamorous and exciting. Until they weren’t.

We are already seeing a decline in youth football participation and more high schools are struggling with whether to continue football programs as parental concerns for the safety of their children reduces participation. Are we missing an educational opportunity in providing leadership on an issue virtually every educational institution in America will have to address in some manner as public distaste for this intensely brutal and physically debilitating game grows?

My journey to this conclusion regarding the future of football at Davidson has been painful. There are many people I know, respect and love who have strong emotional connections to Davidson football, including my own brother. But there is simply too much new information available to continue to proceed without reexamining its role as it relates to institutional mission. We must grapple with this issue and the sooner the better. The game puts young minds at risk.

Davidson College’s mission is to prepare students for lives of leadership and service. Does football as we now understand the physical effects of participation fit with this mission? Can a clear case be made that the institutional return on investment in football is commensurate with the resources, effort, energy and emotion spent to maintain it?

This is no longer about football glory or alumni entertainment. This is about courage and educational leadership. We take pride in developing ethical instincts. This is an opportunity for Davidson to get ahead of a predictable trend and provide national leadership on an issue that speaks directly to values on a very fundamental level.

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About Author

John Gerdy

John Gerdy graduated from Davidson in 1979. He is founder and executive director of Music For Everyone. He can be contacted at JohnGerdy@aol.com or through his website at JohnGerdy.com.

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