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LSU Med School Punts on Student Event about Pro Football Brain Injuries

Dispiriting news is coming out of New Orleans, as The Times-Picayune is reporting the cancellation of a long-planned event co-sponsored by two student organizations at the Louisiana State University (LSU) School of Medicine. The event, originally scheduled for today (three days before the Super Bowl), was supposed to have featured a lecture by former New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Kyle Turley to draw attention to the health and safety hazards arising from head injuries in professional football.

The Times-Picayune reports:

Fliers said the event was sponsored by the LSU Medical Student Association and a group called Ethikos. It was scheduled for Thursday afternoon on the campus of LSU's Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. School officials are refusing to comment on the cancellation.

Turley said he had planned to introduce an as-yet unreleased film by Sean Pamphilon, the film producer who helped inflame the Saints bounty scandal with the release of an audio recording of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams directing his players to inflict pain and injury on their opponents -- the San Francisco 49ers.

Turley commented on the cancellation to the Times-Picayune:

"At the last minute they decide to pull the plug. They have not given me a reason," Turley said. "My presentation was fully known -- what I was coming to do: To give a presentation about concussions and football, the stories that have affected my life and others' lives, how the NFL dealt with it."

As WWL-TV reports, however, safety concerns may have played a role. Medical school dean Steve Nelson tells the station that the university felt there was "a significant safety issue for our students."

Just what that means isn't clear from what has been reported. It could be the case that, in fact, LSU was aware of serious and credible threats made that would have imperiled the safety of the speakers or audience if the event went forward. Such a scenario isn't wholly inconceivable, given the figures involved and the factors in play here. Pamphilon has reported receiving death threats for his role in the Saints bounty scandal.

Universities like LSU, however, are also required to make all necessary security accommodations so that student events like this can go on without disruption. If LSU is worried that unidentified persons may try to disrupt the event or otherwise present a threat to the safety of speakers or attendees, it is LSU's duty to have security officers on hand to deal with any problems as they arise. To do less would risk caving to the "heckler's veto" by granting the most intolerant the power to silence expression they dislike or to cancel an event by threatening violence. Given our experience, it's not difficult to imagine that the cancellation may have had something to do with the anticipated content of the event. Think about it:

  • Since leaving the NFL, Kyle Turley has become an outspoken critic of the league over its treatment of former players and its perceived failures in dealing constructively with the issue of head injuries. (His own experiences fighting head injuries are chronicled in, among other places, this 2009 Malcolm Gladwell piece for The New Yorker.)
  • The issue of head and brain trauma in the NFL is under intense-and still intensifying-scrutiny, and more than 4,000 former players have filed suit against the league alleging that the league has concealed the sport's dangers.
  • Sean Pamphilon is incredibly unpopular amongst some New Orleans Saints fans for his role in bringing what became known as the "Bountygate" scandal to light; as WWL-TV reports, the student organizers of the event made substantial efforts to keep his involvement in the event a secret.

Add to this the fact that LSU is a football powerhouse itself, and that the city is filled with journalists covering Sunday's Super Bowl, not to mention legions of football-crazed fans. It's easy to imagine that the LSU brass might have felt pressured to drop the event as "too hot."

To say that LSU caved to pressure surrounding the event, of course, would be jumping to conclusions. Still, even with LSU's "safety" defense, it's hard not to agree with the Times-Picayune's assessment that "it appears that Louisiana State University officials are shying away from the controversy."

WWL-TV also reports, however, that Tulane University has agreed to host the discussion and film screening in LSU's stead. As Gregory Stewart of the Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine tells WWL-TV:

I think it's very important to get the word out that concussions are serious. ... [W]e at Tulane, the NFL, are all very serious and very concerned about concussion and the long term implications, and are trying to do whatever we can to prevent, and part of prevention is education[.]

We hope that the event goes off without a hitch; if it does, it will be Tulane's gain and LSU's loss.

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