The sport of football is under attack. Participation numbers are on the decline as parents refuse to allow their children to play. The media is full of stories about concussions and the barbarity of the sport. Even the NFL is seeing its TV ratings drop and many are saying the game is on the decline. Some even wonder if it should be abolished.
I just finished reading a study about how the NFL targets kids from a young age, creating sophisticated marketing campaigns to lasso children into becoming players, (and more important, NFL consumers.) The NFL’s PR effort is likened to Big Tobacco’s effort to hook kids on Camel and Marlboro. Convincing moms that football isn’t that dangerous is a big part of the campaign, with a concerted effort to downplay the risk while admonishing overprotective parents to allow their children to pursue their dreams. Parents are also reassured that the game is being made safer by programs like Heads Up Football, placing emphasis on training coaches in teaching safer blocking and tackling techniques. According to the study, Heads Up Football is mostly a sham, designed to allay fears, but doing little to make the game safer.
In this study, they briefly touched on the sports benefits, calling them anecdotal. This is the problem with such studies. Anecdotal implies that the benefits aren’t real, or that any benefits gained by football may be achieved from safer activities.
I love and respect the game as much as anyone, but perception is reality, and the reality is that football is in trouble. The NFL is engaged in a cynical campaign to create another generation of consumers without any regard for real safety. As a coach, I was horrified by much of what I saw on the documentary series, Friday Night Tykes, an extreme example of youth football at its worst. I don’t see the benefit of tackle football for 5-year-olds and would probably advise anyone who asked, to stay away from tackle football until middle or high school. Younger kids are going to get more from flag football.
But football is not the NFL marketing department or an overzealous youth league like the grotesque example displayed in Friday Night Tykes. Football is a game; a culturally important and powerful tool that goes far beyond selling team gear and the worst examples of its excesses.
Labeling all the good that comes from the game as anecdotal may be accurate, but enough anecdotes make a pattern, a pattern impossible to quantify. I know the game taught me toughness, discipline, commitment and teamwork. I know it made me a better student and showed me that I could achieve great things, if I was willing to work for that success. Anecdotes maybe, but also truth.
I’m not alone. Many, if not most, former players will say the same things. How many successful people were at least partially shaped by lessons learned on the football field? The downside of football is ugly and easy to see, injuries, concussions and poor social behavior from ‘star’ players. The good is harder to attribute to football, but is just as real.
Anti-football people might respond with, ‘OK, football does teach values, but can’t those values be taught by safer activities?’
Yes…For many. For others, probably not.
Discipline, teamwork, toughness and commitment are best taught in venues where students are motivated to succeed. It would be wonderful if everyone was motivated to learn discipline in math or English classes, but that just isn’t reality. Fairly or unfairly, in the United States, football has a status to attract many who are looking for something, many who wouldn’t be enthusiastic about other options. Those motivated by music can learn discipline in the band or orchestra. Artistic students may learn these traits in the theater or dance squads.
Athletic kids may learn character playing basketball, soccer or baseball. But what about those not talented enough to play those sports?
Through the high school level, football is a no-cut sport almost everywhere. In my research of the best high school programs in Texas, one common feature was that football was available to every male student. Baseball, basketball, and soccer all have limited rosters and cut kids who can’t contribute. The positive benefits of football are accessible to kids who will never be great athletes. Including those who never see the field. This gives football the unique ability to reach a huge cross section of kids.
Another unique aspect of football is specialized positions. Boys with many body types are needed and can contribute; small, quick kids can play in the secondary and as receivers, bigger boys are linebackers, running backs linemen. Many of the adult linemen I coached in Germany told me of how excited they were to find football, ’finally a sport where I can excel!’ Not like soccer, where they were always too big.
Can football be made safe? Not entirely. There are dangers to every physical activity. Soccer, skiing, bike riding and many other sports all have significant concussion risks. Concussions were surely as prevalent when I played during the mid-80s, but nobody worried about it then. That the risk is no acknowledged is progress in itself. Equipment has improved, so has training staffs and coaching. I expect rules will continue to change to protect players.
It isn’t my place to say the game is right for everyone. It isn’t. Just as the basketball team, the debate club or the marching band aren’t for everyone. But comprehensive education means options for students to find their niches. Football has been the path for many young men to learn character not taught in the classroom or even, in many cases, at home. I doubt those who would like to see it abolished know how important the game has been to so many. Yes, concussion numbers would likely diminish, but undoubtedly so would many anecdotes from those who’ve become better people because of the game.