Football has long been a source of headache and heartache for fans. But for players, the lingering thrill of victory or agony of defeat isn't the only thing they carry with them for years after they leave the field — long-term brain injuries sustained while playing the sport can lead to early onset dementia, depression, and Alzheimers. Now, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, one professor of humanities and bioethics wonders if repeated, traumatic brain injury like the type sustained by football players can make men prone to more insidious behaviors — like pedophilia.
Professor Alice Dreger is admittedly not a football fan — which actually might put her in a better position to analyze data on the harmful effects of football without appealing to the classic fan defense of the sport, which tends to disintegrate into a rant about fun-ruining jerks who hate tradition ("But...football! Winning! Glory! Hail! Play like a champion today! Hail to the victors!" etc). Dreger has argued that purposefully exposing young people to conditions that could lead to side effects as serious as early death is unethical. But now, she's arguing that football may not only be unethical, it may be harmful to society.
She cites research that found that adult pedophiles tended to have been subjected to more childhood brain trauma than their non-pedophiliac counterparts. In addition, more research has found that hypersexuality can develop after adult konks on the head, which can include pedophilia. One researcher surmised that head injuries don't change sexuality, but rather unlock aspects of a person's sexuality that were otherwise kept under control. A third study found that some men exhibit pedophiliac behavior after experiencing symptoms of brain disease.
Jerry Sandusky was a football player. Jerry Sandusky sexually abused some kids. DID FOOTBALL CAUSE SEXUAL ABUSE?
Definitely not safe to call this one yet. The link between pedophilia and football is completely untested and theoretical at best (and wildly speculative at worst), and would require years worth of research to prove, as Dreger notes. The childhood brain trauma/pedophile link, for example, only applies to people injured before age 13, before many young men start playing football. The "head injuries unlock latent sexual expression" finding would only apply to people who were already pedophiles deep down inside, and the "brain disease can lead to pedophilia" observation would only make sense if the brain diseases that led to pedophilia were the same sort of brain diseases that were definitely caused by the sort of traumatic head injuries players receive while playing football.
So hold off on throwing a college gameday tee shirt bonfire just yet. In all likelihood, you've still got several guilt-free years before we find out how awful football is for the people who play it.
Images via Pennsylvania Attorney General's office/Getty.