Study reveals high costs of college and high school contact sports
Reducing the injury rates in football and other male contact sports to those of non-contact sports like tennis or baseball would result in 49,600 fewer injuries per year in colleges and 601,900 injuries per year in high school, according to a new study by Yale economist Ray C. Fair.
Fair, who co-authored the study with Yale undergraduate Christopher Champa, found that barring contact in football and other contact sports would generate savings of between $446 million and $1.5 billion per year in colleges, and up to $19.2 billion in high schools. Football accounted for slightly more than half of the college savings and more than 70% of savings in high school sports.
“Banning contact in high school and college sports would vastly reduce injuries and create substantial savings in lowered medical costs and lost productivity,” said Fair, the John M. Musser Professor of Economics at Yale. “Admittedly, making football a non-contact sport would be a dramatic and highly controversial change in American sports culture. Our analysis is intended to provide policy makers cost estimates that they can weigh against the benefits of contact sports when considering what to do about contact.”
The researchers examined injury data covering the 2009-2010 academic year through the 2013-2014 academic year from the NCAA Injury Surveillance Program, which is compiled by the Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention, and the High School Reporting Information Online project. The data were taken from a sample of reporting colleges and high schools and expanded to national totals.
For colleges, the researchers analyzed the contact sports football, wrestling, soccer, basketball, and lacrosse against the non-contact sports tennis, baseball, indoor track, outdoor track, and cross country. For high schools, they compared injury rates in football, soccer, basketball, and wrestling to baseball. (Basketball is technically a non-contact sport, but its injury rates are similar to contact sports.)
The researchers analyzed four kinds of injuries in college sports: concussions, bone injuries, ligament/cartilage sprains and tears, and muscle injuries. The injury rates for the contact sports were substantial higher. For example, there were 7.79 injuries per 1,000 exposures in college football, compared to 3.17 injuries per 1,000 exposures in college baseball and 1.75 injuries per 1,000 exposures in outdoor track.
In high schools, there were 3.73 injuries per 1,000 exposures in football, compared to 0.90 injuries per 1,000 exposures in baseball.
The researchers also found that the concussion rate in college football was 15 times higher than in non-contact college sports. It was 10 times higher in high school. Reducing concussions to the level of those in non-contact sports would result in 6,900 fewer concussions per year in college and 161,400 fewer in high school, according to the study. Scientific research has linked playing tackle football to cognitive problems and neurodegenerative diseases, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The study’s savings estimates underestimate the total cost of contact sports because they cover short-term costs but do not account for possible long-term health and cognitive problems from having played football and other contact sports, Fair said, adding that their data do not allow for long-term estimates.
“Many institutions are reluctant to release data on sports injuries,” he said. “We’re working to get universities to collect and make public more injury data so that people can make more informed decisions about whether to participate in contact sports. Data on women would be particularly helpful. This study is a step in that effort.”
Fair and Champa, a Yale senior majoring in economics, provide suggestions for lowering injury rates in contact sports to those in non-contact sports. They suggest that a ban on contact, as well as heading in soccer, and tighter refereeing could possibly reduce injury rates of ice hockey, soccer, and lacrosse to non-contact levels. Football would have to transform into a non-contact version of the game, such as flag football, they suggest.