While baseball is often referred to as America’s Pastime, there is little doubt that football is king.
Every Friday night in the fall, towns shut down and people flock to watch their local boys take on their rivals. Saturday morning are spent tailgating by thousands, waiting to cheer on their favorite college. Millions across the country have long standing dates with their couch every Sunday. Pick your metric – TV ratings, franchise value, average fan attendance, etc… and football will come out on top. With all the attention paid to the sport, there has been growing social backlash towards football. At its core, football is a violent sport. Coaches across America will sell football as a “legalized fight”.
Research is emerging that is pointing out the long – term effects that a long career in football has on the body. Concussions garner a lot of the attention, but they are not the only long – term effect. Retired NFL players often suffer from injuries that permanently effect their mobility, pain tolerance, cognition, etc… In recent years, society has routinely found itself asking the question, “Is football really dangerous?” Some football apologists attempt to answer the question by dismissing the research and facts as only being a small percentage of those that play. As time progresses and more and more studies are released, this approach seems to be misguided and ultimately futile.
If football is going to continue to be part of the fabric of American culture, its supporters must acknowledge the obvious answer, football is an inherently dangerous sport. However just because it is “dangerous” does not mean it should be avoided. Rather than asking the question “Is football really dangerous?”, society needs to ask the question “Is football worth the risks it requires?” Just as the obvious to the original question is an obvious “yes”, the answer to the second question is just as obvious of a “yes”.
How dangerous is it?
Football is dangerous, and if the sport is going to continue its popularity, it must accept this truth. There is a reason that so much padding is required to play the sport. At any age, every play presents risk. During Pop Warner/youth football games, it is not uncommon for players to experience various low – grade injuries such as sprains and strains. Research is finding repeated exposure of small impacts occurring during youth football contribute to future brain injuries. As players grow in size and strength, the impact of the hits/contact necessitated by the sport gains higher and higher risks. Breaks, ruptures, tears, etc… become more common as the stakes are raised with the larger bodies of older athletes.
Playing at your own risk
This escalation continues all the way to the highest level of the sport in the NFL. Ever since the death of Kory Stringer in 2001, there has been attention to not just the safety associated with the games, but also to practice conditions. Just this season, Jordan McNair, an offensive lineman from the University of Maryland, died because of complications from a mishandled heat related illness that occurred during practice.
Taken together, the cause for concern is more than justified. Parents want their kids to be safe, and with the attention given to the dangers associated with football, the future of football has been called into question by some. It is important, however, to remember that the question is not “Is football really dangerous?”, but rather “Is football worth the risks it requires?”
The question “Is football worth the risks it requires?” is a better question for one simple reason. Most things in life worth doing require risk. The cliché example is to talk about how more people die due to airplane/car accidents each year than from playing football. That is an apple to orange comparison however. It is better to compare the risks of football to similar events. At the youth level, more children will die as a result of traumatic head injuries suffered in baseball/softball (3-4 per year) than football.
Accepting the risks
Few are calling for us to stop playing baseball. Traumatic head injuries are clearly an extreme example however. It may be better to compare more “run of the mill” injuries. According to the Center for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly 50% of head injuries suffered during sports/recreation activities are the result of biking, skateboarding, or skating. Football is the leading cause of injury related emergency visits, 215,000 trips, but bicycling is not far behind with 200,000 trips.
There are no national campaigns encouraging parents to stop teaching their children to ride bikes. As we grow older, we also take on riskier and riskier challenges. Few people claim activities such as sky diving, climbing Mt. Everest, cave exploring, base jumping, etc… are safe. Rather these activities have expected and accepted dangers.
People don’t just casually decide to base jump, they do so accepting the inherent risks associated with doing it. Until recent years, this was the problem that football had. Few people were aware of the long and short – term risks associated with football. As we learn more about the lasting impact has on athletes, it is important that the public is educated on the risks associated with football.
It is also imperative that the NFL, NCAA, and other leading associations take action to address the concerns of the public. There are minimal safety standards required in many extreme sports and activities, such as sky diving, base jumping, rock climbing, etc… likewise, there needs to be better implementation of minimal safety standards at all levels of football.
Addressing safety concerns
While it has yet to become mainstream knowledge, the NFL, NCAA, and other associations have been working for years to address the safety concerns associated with football in a variety of ways. Many efforts are still outside the public eye, but the efforts of USA Football, in conjunction with the NFL, have gained prominence. Heads Up Football, launched in 2012, is a program that seeks to educate all youth football coaches in how to tackle.
A 2017 study showed that the emphasis on educating youth coaches has helped decrease the amount of head injuries since Heads Up Football has founded. Their first program was in proper tackling technique, this initiative is the most visible action taken to address the safety concerns associated with football, but it is far from the only one. Texas High School Coaches Association now require all coaches to obtain Tackling Certification.
Another way the NFL, NCAA, and other organizations are addressing the safety concerns associated with football is by implementing stricter Return to Play (RTP) protocols. Over the last few years, leagues at all levels have adopted RTP protocols that are more informed to the lasting impacts on athletes. In Texas, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) requires every coach to undergo 2 hours of training on the symptoms to look for and actions to take when a concussion is suspected each year.
If a student is suspected of a concussion, they are immediately removed from play. After being removed from play, an athletic trainer must determine if/when an athlete can return to the game/practice. This is not unique in Texas, as the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) requires concussion training as part of their beginning coach training. Just as the recognition, diagnosis, and treatment of concussions has received increased attention at the high school level, the same thing is occurring at the collegiate and professional levels.
Tackling and concussion safety are major areas of focus across football organizations throughout America, but that is far from the only actions that are occurring. USA Football is actively promoting and encouraging the growth of flag football in the younger age groups. In flag football, young athletes learn the basic skills of route running, coverage, passing, etc… while not enduring as much physical contact.
High schools are regulating practice hours and contact time. It is common in Texas for districts to regulate not just how long teams practice, but also when. Many districts are not allowed to practice during the early afternoon to late afternoon hours to avoid the highest temperatures of the day.
Colleges are using wearable technology to evaluate the heart rates, core temperatures, work rates, etc… of their athletes to avoid over working their athletes. Equipment manufacturers are constantly evolving and creating better and better equipment to make the game safer. The NFL has changed its rules, often to public outcry, to promote player safety. Action is being taken to alleviate the concerns of the public by making football safer. It is now imperative that these actions continue to be promoted and encourage amidst the football community and that the public is educated about these actions.
The original question is answered, football is dangerous. The larger question, “Is football worth the risks associated with it?” still needs to be answered. There is a reason that activities such as sky diving, base jumping, and rock climbing are niche sports/activities. Their dangers are understood, and few people find them worth the risk. Football is far from a niche sport. It is almost universally accepted as the most popular sport in our country. What is it about football that makes it worth the risk?
Promoting a healthy lifestyle
For one, football promotes physical activity. As obesity rates rise nationwide, there is a need to encourage our youth to engage in physical activity. Participation in physical activity is key to the prevention of many chronic diseases. Habits form at an early age, so getting youth to engage in physical activity will create habits that will follow them throughout their lives.
Kids that learn to love sports will be more active in their later years. In middle school and high school, students can learn proper lifting techniques and form. Under the watchful eye of coaches and trainers, young athletes can learn proper techniques that will help minimize injuries that occur because of improper technique.
Football promotes a healthy lifestyle that encourages athletes to ensure their body is capable of performance. Ask any high school coach, and you can almost guarantee that not only with they love to tell you about their stud All – State player, but also the athlete whose life was changed physically.
Getting involved in football helps battle the growing issue of obesity in football. Even the lineman, who may appear to be obese, are taught the workout habits needed to shed the extra pounds they are sometimes encouraged to carry. There is a reason so many retired linemen are quickly able to get into shape. Physical activity makes football worth a risk. There must be more than just the physical benefit to outweigh the associated risks however.
Dealing with adversity
There are few activities in life that train a person in how to deal with adversity better than football. Developing mental toughness and perseverance is one of the biggest benefits of playing football. No player is going to “win” every play, no matter how good they are. In every football game, athletes will have to overcome adversity. You will get beat on a play, the question is how you will respond.
An outfielder is not involved in every defensive play in a baseball game, a center rarely has anything to do in defending the perimeter during a basketball game, a goalie may only have to stop a few shots during a soccer match.
Taking a play or possession off in basketball is not all that difficult, taking a play off in football risks you and your teammates getting hurt. Football constantly puts you in adverse situations, whether it is 3rd and long on offense or 1st and goal for a defense, and you must respond. By being exposed to adverse situation after situation, athletes must be perseverant to succeed.
More than simple physical fitness, this is a huge benefit for playing football. Success in life is not handed out. It is the ability to consistently give full effort and overcome adversity that often defines success in life. The football field is one of the best training grounds to develop these mental traits.
Similarities in sports
Football provides training for physical conditioning and mental resilience, but these can be achieved in other less “dangerous” sports. Every point matters in a tennis match, you have to overcome bad shots in golf, and every pitcher must overcome the defeating feeling of giving up a winning run in baseball. What separates football from these other athletic endeavors is simple. Football is the ultimate team sport. It takes 11 people working in unison to achieve a team goal. A great quarterback is nothing without an offensive line to protect him and wide receivers to catch the ball.
A great corner needs the defensive line and linebackers to stop the run. The defense needs the offense to score, and even the kicker must do his job. Other sports can approximate the cohesion and interdependence of a football team, but they can’t quite reach the same heights. Though we are often quick to praise and declare our independence, the reality is that every needs a support system. Football teaches this vital life lesson in a way nothing else can. In his famous “Man in the Arena” speech, Teddy Roosevelt says
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again. There is no success without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds know great enthusiasms and the great devotions.
More than any other team sport embodies the spirit of this speech. These physical and mental benefits of football make it worth its associated risks. Via football, athletes learn perseverance, self – discipline, and teamwork all while keeping physically fit. While it certainly has its risks, the benefits of playing football outweigh those risks.
So is football dangerous? Yes. Does that mean people should not play? No. As we learn more about the long term effects of playing football, it is imperative that the NFL, NCAA, and other organizations make changes to make it a safer game. It is important that they inform the public of the risks that come along with playing football. However, it will never be a “safe” sport. Like many other things, it is inherently risky.
Young athletes need to be taught the proper way to play the game. Equipment needs to be continually improved to minimize the risk of injury. Proper care needs to be provided for those that injured in the course of play. The game of football needs to continue to evolve. To evolve however, it has to continue to be played.
Many people today are constantly looking for excuses to avoid doing the difficult thing. The irony is that difficult things are often the most worth doing. They also tend to require the most risk. Football is not an easy sport to play. Experiencing failure will happen. Sacrificing your blood, sweat, and tears preparing for games is a part of the deal. You will risk bodily injury and the stinging blow of defeat. In the end, however, you will be better off for it.