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No, College Football Is Not Like the Tuskegee Study

In a remarkable opinion piece, Lewis Margolis, an associate professor of maternal and child health at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Gregory Margolis, a senior research assistant at the Brookings Institute, compare the participation of young people in football to the Tuskegee Study. The comparison is off-base, and the Margolises should stop making it.

The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphillis in the Negro Male,” which began in 1932, is infamous. The U.S. Public Health Service told 399 syphilitic black men that they would get free treatment for “bad blood.” Instead, study participants, for the most part, received no treatment, even after penicillin’s efficacy in treating syphilis was established. The study was halted only in 1972 and only because of a public outcry. While historians defend the original intent of the research, few defend the continuation of the study or think that it would have continued had the subjects not been poor and black. Whatever the complexity of the case, “Tuskegee Study” and “racism” are synonymous in our political lexicon.

So when the Margolises say that the participation of young people in football has “unsettling similarities to the infamous ‘Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male’,” they mean that when young people are allowed to play football, in spite of our concerns about concussions and their long-term effects, that is because of our society’s unexamined racism.

What evidence do they have to back up this astonishing claim? “African American males composed the largest segment of football players (45.8) percent” in 2009-10. Since African Americans constitute less than 13 percent of the population, “African-American football players face a disproportionate exposure to the risk of concussions and their consequences.” That’s it.

As the Margolises acknowledge, “concussion investigators are not knowingly misleading subjects to participate” in football. Moreover, they point us to the data, which show that whites in 2009-10 composed the second largest segment of football players, at 45.1 percent. College football would be like the Tuskegee Study, if the Tuskegee Study had recruited and left untreated almost as many white participants as black participants. Since every participant in the Tuskegee Study was black, the Margolises’ claim that there are “unsettling similarities” between youth football and the Tuskegee experiment is false. Since the Margolises presumably understand the moral weight of the Tuskegee Study, the claim is also irresponsible.

But it gets worse. The data the Margolises cite is not about football in general. It is about Division I football. In my college’s own Division III, Caucasians are 75.7 percent of the players, African Americans only 16.7 percent. Since whites are only about 63 percent of the population, whites face a disproportionate exposure to the risk of concussions in Division III. Yet the risk of concussion in Division III may be greater than it is in Division I. The Margolises’ story, weak even if limited solely to Division I athletes, completely falls apart when the other divisions are taken into account.

As a parent and long-time physical coward, I am inclined to heed warnings against getting one’s children involved in youth football. Moreover, I think it is worth wondering along with the Margolises whether “African-American communities have the information they need and deserve to consider and consent to this risk for their sons,” though I doubt very many parents, white or black, however well-informed, will keep their children out of the Division I programs that the Margolises are most concerned about. However that may be, inflammatory and insupportable comparisons to the Tuskegee Study do nothing to protect young athletes.


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