I just finished reading The King of Sports by Gregg Easterbrook and I don’t think I’ve ever both agreed and disagreed with opinions within one book as much at the same time. The book highlighted the many dark sides of the sport. Easterbrook made strong points in writing about how billionaire owners have used political connections to get tax subsidies. On college football, he talks about the corruption of both the NCAA and the bowl system. Pretty standard stuff, that’s been written many times and points that are tough to disagree with.
When he talked about the toll on football players themselves, my feelings were mixed.
- Youth Football- I agree with the author that pre-adolescences playing tackle football isn’t a good thing. I saw some little kid football this past weekend and it just reinforced my belief. Football wasn’t designed for little kids, their bodies aren’t capable of playing the game correctly. At best the game is a waste of time for grade-school kids, at worst it’s dangerous. Tackle football shouldn’t be played until middle school.
- Concussions-An expose about football cannot be written these days without extended discussion about the dangers of concussions, so of course it was talked about Esterbrook was much more balanced than some, pointing out that girls soccer and gymnastics both are more likely to lead to concussions than football. Instead of condemning the sport, he suggested ways to improve the game like better helmets and rule changes.
- Year-around football- I absolutely agree with Easterbrook’s contention that the movement towards year-round is a bad thing. The problem is that the author never points out that football is the sport with the LEAST year-round activity. Baseball, basketball and all girls sports are a lot worse when it comes to specialization. Every football coach I’ve met wants their players in other sports. Track is universally pushed by football coaches. Baseball and football coaches often run summer and fall teams. Easterbrook sites the growth of 7 and 7, pro profit combines and some obscure youth league to make his claim. But most 7 on 7 is during summer, football’s traditional preseason, those combines ARE scams, but are never affiliated with any programs. Finally, I’ve never even met anyone involved with year-round youth football.
· High School football. This is where he really went off the rails.
- He talks about high school teams playing national schedules. (Again, he never puts it in perspective that it’s a tiny percentage of schools that ever play such games.)
- Sixteen game seasons (Very few teams go this long.)
- He makes the amazing claim that “Football has begun to detract from boys‘ chances of reaching college.”(His evidence? Girls are going to college more than boys and girls don’t play football. He doesn’t site studies that boys involved with extra-curricular athletics get higher grades and go to college at a higher percentage than non-involved boys.) That very few HS players will play college ball and are thus “Thrown away” once their HS career ends. (I guess I was thrown away by this standard. At 5’4 I was a decent HS guard but had no hope of playing at the University of Nevada. NOBODY claims HS football is supposed to be a training ground for a career in football. The success of a HS program is NOT measured by how many kids get scholarships, few will and any that do are a bonus. HS athletic programs exist to teach character traits better taught outside the classroom. Period. I’ll never understand why HS football detractors so often need to point out the scarcity of players able to make a living from football. The same is true of every extracurricular. How many girls soccer players make a living from soccer, or band members from music, or theater students from acting?
- Coaching—Easterbrook makes strong statements about coaches. Some were flat out wrong. He claims that in parts of Texas coaches are hired by booster clubs, not school districts. I’d love to hear how this is possible given that Texas requires every coach of every sport to be a full-time school employee. He uses this to launch into a rant about how coaches abuse kids because they somehow “Don’t answer to anyone” Never mentioning a coach is under the microscope more than almost anyone, second guessed for every decision. He talks about too many coaches yelling at their kids and encourages more positive coaching methods. Again, this is something easy to agree with but very incomplete. There are bad coaches who yell too much, but Easterbrook doesn’t support the claim that this is a big problem within the sport. His only example of “Bad” coaching is television images of Lou Sabin yelling at Alabama players. I don’t know whether Sabin is a good or bad guy, but seeing someone yelling on TV isn’t enough to condemn him. Yelling is NOT inherently bad. I’ve known great coaches who yell a lot and great coaches who never yell. I probably fit somewhere in the middle. Some players respond well to intensity, some don’t. Football is an emotional sport. A good coach knows how to use emotion to reach his players and coaches have to coach within their personalities. Asking a mellow coach to be intense or an intense one to be mellow doesn’t work. The bottom line is how well a coach takes care of the players and yelling doesn’t necessarily mean a coach isn’t loving on them too.