// NCAA gets serious about player safety: five ejections in Week 1//

In light of the recent findings linking repeated blows to the head in football with long-term brain damage, it looks like the NCAA is getting serious about protecting players from dangerous head-to-head hits. So much so that five players were ejected on college football’s opening weekend.

During the offseason, the NCAA’s Football Rules Committee changed the penalty for targeting a defenseless player from a fifteen-yard penalty to a fifteen-yard penalty plus ejection of the offending player. In the first weekend with this new rule, five players were ejected. Lorenzo Doss of Tulane, Chris McCain of Cal, Carlos Aviles of Indiana State, Deshazor Everett of Texas A&M and Terrance Mitchell of Oregon all got the boot on Saturday. See Mitchell’s illegal hit on a sliding Beaux Hebert below (courtesy of SB Nation).

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The NCAA defines “targeting a defenseless player” as using the top of the helmet to initiate contact with the head or neck area of a player that cannot properly defend themselves from the attack—usually because they are facing away from the attacker and can’t see them coming, or because they’re wrapped up in some other activity (like sliding) that renders them vulnerable.

This rule change was motivated by a number of recent studies (like this one in the neurology journal Brain) that have shown severe long-term neurological problems among lifelong football players. In the past, the only real concern among players was avoiding concussions; but the new research shows that repeated sub-concussive blows over a decades-long career can result in a condition called chronic tau encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE results when a protein called tau, which is critical for healthy brain function, begins to clump together with other tau in the brain. When tau begins to aggregate, it cannot function as it should.

Tau provides structural support to brain cells—think of them as the bolts holding together a scaffolding. When they begin to clump together as a result of repeated sub-concussive blows, they are effectively robbed from the brain cell and prevented from doing their duty as a structural stabilizer. Imagine what would happen if you slowly started removing the bolts from the scaffolding: eventually, once you remove too many, the scaffolding collapses. So will a brain cell.

This is very similar to what happens in the brain during Alzheimer’s disease. So it’s not too far off to imagine these repeated sub-concussive blows to the head as “forcing” the brain into Alzheimer’s disease.

And these aren’t isolated events, either: In the Brain study linked above, 34 former NFL players were studied, and 31 of them had intermediate to severe CTE or other similar brain damage. That’s terrifying. Bob Costas, longtime NBC sports commentator, recently stated that “the way football is currently played in the NFL is fundamentally unsustainable”. Indeed; the NFL just paid out a $765 million settlement to former players with neurological issues.

I’m passionate about addressing this problem partly because I research how aggregation of tau affects the brain—and partly because I’m simply passionate about football. I want to see both the game and its players thrive in the lawsuit-laden 21st century. This puts me, like many others, in a tough position. I can accept that football is a violent and risky affair that will never be as safe as soccer or basketball. But I also can’t shrug it off and fully enjoy my favorite sport when I know the players are putting themselves at risk for serious brain damage down the road. 

The NCAA rule change is long overdue, but it doesn’t go far enough. Violent head-to-head shots have no place in the game; they’re unnecessary and put players at undue risk. Putting strong penalties in place to deter these types of hits is an easy change that will minimally affect how the game is played. Ejecting players who consciously choose to target a defenseless player is a good start—it’s a very visible punishment that publicly highlights a player’s misconduct (and from the number of ejections in just Week 1, we can see just how widespread the problem of targeting is in college football). But such flagrant disregard for safety ought to warrant multiple-game suspensions or disqualification for the season.

There are only a few options if we truly want to increase player safety in football. Either remove the helmets and pads completely and turn football into a rugby variant, or seriously punish those who put themselves and their opponents at risk. Assuming we want to keep the pads on, kudos to the NCAA for taking a step in the right direction. The great game of football will only sustain itself into the future if it is safe. If players want to compromise that, get them out of the game.

// That’s so meta: Human behavior researchers research the human behavior of human behavior researchers//

Two human behavior researchers recently published a study so meta it makes me cognizant of my own cognizant head hurting: Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh and John Ioannidis of Stanford studied how other researchers of human behavior presented their findings in various countries throughout the world. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (abstract here), found that human behavioralists in the United States tend to exaggerate the importance of their findings more than their international counterparts.

The cause for this “US effect” is likely the uber-competitive US academic culture, where the world’s top researchers are all competing for a finite amount of grant funding. Padding your resume with a number of “breakthrough” discoveries can only increase your chances of securing funding in the future, so the incentive is strong for researchers to exaggerate the importance of results. (There’s a great synopsis of the study by The Guardian here)

But what’s more interesting than the results, I think, is the sheer meta-ness of it all: here are two experts in human behavior, researching the human behavior of other experts in human behavior. And what’s hilariously ironic is that the subjects in this study—who make a living analyzing how people’s environments cause them to make certain decisions—probably did not realize that they were behaving in classic human-responds-to-environment style, nor did they realize that this was actually a widespread phenomenon spread across their entire field (“I bet no one else is exaggerating their findings, so this will give me a leg up!”).

But this begs the questions: did Fanelli and Ioannidis exaggerate their findings? Is their supposed objective analysis of the behavior of others truly objective and honest? Or could they have subconsciously chosen to exaggerate also? More broadly, can we critique the behavior of others without behaving similarly ourselves? Why did Brian Wilson sign with the Dodgers? Perhaps these questions simply cannot be answered.

At the risk of getting even more meta than the study’s authors, I think that there’s an important lesson to learn here: humans (especially scientists) are liable to fall into the frame of mind in which we see ourself as objective, unbiased observers, separated from the world around us. The reality is that we are all products of nature, and as such we are subject to nature’s laws and to our own irrational tendencies which nature has instilled in us. Remembering this humbling truth can lead to some fascinating moments of introspection: when you realize why you believe something, or are behaving in some way, you can begin to separate the strong emotional influences like affection, fear, desire to secure more grant funding, etc., from the rational influence of reason, and you can begin to see the world with increasing clarity. 

After all, in the words of philosopher Alan Watts: “You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself.” Now that’s meta.



The (Political)Scientist is a Ph.D. student in Applied Physics at a California university. He enjoys skiing, playing music, writing fragments, traveling, and 

On December 15th, the world will commemorate one year since the loss of a spectacular writer, humanist, and world citizen. You are missed, Hitch.
- The Political Scientist

On December 15th, the world will commemorate one year since the loss of a spectacular writer, humanist, and world citizen. You are missed, Hitch.

- The Political Scientist

First, Bill Nye took on creationism in the viral video titled “Bill Nye: Creationism Is Not Appropriate For Children” (available here: http://youtu.be/gHbYJfwFgOU). Now, in a completely different, totally not edited video, the Science Guy takes on climate change deniers.

I’m spending two weeks at a biophysics conference at the Institut d’Etudes Scientifique de Cargese, on the French island of Corsica. This is the view from my window. There are worse places to do physics.

I’m spending two weeks at a biophysics conference at the Institut d’Etudes Scientifique de Cargese, on the French island of Corsica. This is the view from my window. There are worse places to do physics.

"When you’re finally up at the moon looking back on earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend, and you’re going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world and why the hell can’t we learn to live together like decent people." - Frank Borman, Apollo 8 astronaut

"When you’re finally up at the moon looking back on earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend, and you’re going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world and why the hell can’t we learn to live together like decent people." - Frank Borman, Apollo 8 astronaut

There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.
Socrates
I’ve been noticing an increasing amount of postings lately that falsely attribute quotes about the dangers of welfare, social programs, taking from the rich to give to the poor, etc. to the founding fathers. If you see one, remember before you share it that the concept of welfare didn’t exist in America until the 1930s, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that people who are not elderly or disabled became eligible receive it.Anyway, I just found this great quote by Thomas Jefferson…

I’ve been noticing an increasing amount of postings lately that falsely attribute quotes about the dangers of welfare, social programs, taking from the rich to give to the poor, etc. to the founding fathers. If you see one, remember before you share it that the concept of welfare didn’t exist in America until the 1930s, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that people who are not elderly or disabled became eligible receive it.

Anyway, I just found this great quote by Thomas Jefferson…

You are bigger than you could ever imagine. YOU are the Universe observing itself.

You are bigger than you could ever imagine. YOU are the Universe observing itself.

The (Political) Scientist a 23 year-old, politically-charged, aspiring physicist. Not a political scientist, but a (political) scientist.

Twitter: @PolitiScientist