Letter to the Editor: Former Crimson Hockey Defenseman Defends Contact Sports

To the editor:

Prior to and during my time at Harvard, I have been concussed multiple times in my hockey career and have suffered severely as a result. Despite double digit brain injuries, I made the decision to continue playing and understood the risk that I was taking. For me, the negatives of repeated injury are outweighed by the countless positive experiences that sport provided. After my last concussion on January 9th, 2015, I was left reeling from symptoms and was forced to retire; yet, if I could go back in time to when I first laced up my skates, I would not change a single thing. When I was concussed, as miserable as my symptoms were, ranging from the cognitive to the physical, nothing could cheer me up more than the rink, my sport, and my teammates. This value of athletics is intrinsic and serves as an outlet and an identity for athletes around the globe.

No one is going to argue that getting hit in the head is good for you or that there aren’t any long term issues stemming from traumatic brain injury. However, the cases that have been spotlighted by the media are exceptional. This is not to ignore the tragedies nor is it intended to shift the spotlight away from concussions, but these unfortunate dangers of sport, and ultimately life, serve as a starting point for communication, education and prevention of further injury. This effort to establish a dialogue is a far more rational and empathetic solution than calling for an end to football, and consequentially all sports that pose a risk of concussions.

To say that “Harvard is not simply risking the health of its players on a weekly basis, but threatening players’ mental and physical well being for the rest of their lives” displays a fundamental misunderstanding of athletics and inability to empathize with the psyche of athletes. While football and contact sports are dangerous and injuries do occur, it is not Harvard that is putting these athletes at risk. As a 20-year-old Harvard student, I believe that I have the capabilities to evaluate the risk and reward of contact sports. Additionally, as a fully consenting individual, I do not think that it is anyone’s right to dictate my participation. My mother, a nurse practitioner in trauma, who has participated in panels with Hockey Canada regarding concussions and given multiple talks on traumatic brain injury, and my father, a dentist, were very clear about the risks of concussions. In hockey, I played a role that left me prone to injuries from a young age. I was not your star player but rather a shut down defenseman known for hits, blocked shots, and the occasional fight – a role that is not without risk. I loved it, and I continued to play despite knowing that injuries were inevitable.

University of Texas Athletic Director Christine Plonksy maintains that for student athletes, “the opportunity to receive an advanced education always has been the traditional and primary motivation behind their athletic participation.” While this may be true at a scholarship institution, Harvard does not award any athletic scholarships, and thus, there is no economic incentive for players to continue playing football past the moment they are accepted. Raised by two parents in medicine, I was aware of the impact of concussions and the importance of education. I was aware that hockey could be leveraged for a great education, but by no means was I economically coerced into continuing my career. While I would not be the same person without hockey in my upbringing, from an academic standpoint I would have been able to succeed.

The value of athletics far exceeds the benefits of physical conditioning; it tremendously impacts life in general. Through sport, individuals learn how to push for success and cope with failure, how to work within a team of equally devoted individuals, the value of hard work, discipline, sacrifice, and ultimately how to be an active and valuable member of society. Football at Harvard, an institution known for its transformative education, certainly adds value. Furthermore, football and athletics should be welcomed as an integral part of any educational institution that seeks to maintain a diverse student body. This is why Title IX was applied to athletics: educators and legislators alike see value in competition at the collegiate level.

Harvard strives to break down class barriers. Arenas of athletic competition are one of the most effective ways to eliminate social segregation. Through sport, class distinctions are temporarily suspended, individuals across the spectrum compete together with one common goal: winning. It is this idea of spontaneous communitas, as coined by anthropologist Victor Turner, that allows sport to represent the population as a whole.

While athletes across Harvard’s campus are involved in a multitude of activities outside their sport, much of their identity stems from their athletics. To take away this identity, family, and support system would be an abuse of power and the cause of more harm than good. In a high stress environment such as Harvard, mental illness is a reality. A healthy outlet through athletics is essential to the well being of its student athletes and beneficial to student fans as well. Professionals and those who have experienced stress and depression first-hand defend the merit of athletics in coping with mental illness. To deprive students of these opportunities would be to deprive them of the opportunity to belong.

Ultimately, as Crimson contributor Jim Davis pointed out, it must be noted that there is in fact an issue with concussions in contact sport. When deaths were occurring in early football, President Theodore Roosevelt considered banning the game. Fortunately, this did not happen, and vast improvements in the sport were made. However, with new technology and research capabilities, it is indeed time for advancements; we currently have an opportunity to change the rules, and through dialogue on education and safety, ensure that the benefits of sport continue. While the balance between physical advancement and practices adjusted for safety is a difficult challenge to tackle, it is not impossible. As such, there is no need to ban collegiate football, but rather a need for greater research, education and preventative measures. While progress has been made, the question of whether major changes will first emerge from the collegiate or professional ranks remains unanswered. However, the merit of sport in education is, in my opinion, irrefutable.

Kevin Guiltinan is a junior in Harvard College and a former Harvard hockey defenseman.

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