You Simply Can’t Put Lipstick on a Pigskin

deflated football

deflated football

The following essay was published in the Lancaster, PA Sunday News on April 19, 2015

On March 29, LNP devoted significant space to a discussion of concussions in youth sports. While the writers presented some interesting perspectives, there is far more to the story.

This is evidenced in a recent report that USA Football, which is funded by the NFL and various corporate sponsors, including ESPN, has invested in developing and conducting “Mom’s Clinics” throughout the country. The clinics target moms, many of whom decide whether their children play tackle football, to reassure them that the game can be played safely.

Ironically, another article reported the results of a new study of NFL retirees that found those who began playing football when they were younger than 12 years old had a higher risk of developing memory and thinking problems later in life.

While both groups scored below average on many tests, those who began playing before age 12 scored roughly 20 percent lower than those who began playing after age 12.

While we should applaud the efforts of those who are attempting to make the game safer, it’s almost laughable the extent to which the NFL believes that the growing awareness of the violent nature of the game is something that can be pasted over with promotional campaigns to convince the public that the game is suitably safe.

Seemingly every few days, another revelation from a study or comments from a former player remind us of the brutal and debilitating nature of the game. When people such as President Barack Obama, LeBron James and football great Mike Ditka say they would not let their children play tackle football, it is clear that something major is going on.

It is becoming increasingly clear that youth, junior high and high school football, as currently played, will see a steady decline in participation and sponsorship. For example, Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, saw participation drop 9.5 percent between 2010 and 2012. Yes, marginal progress is being made in the increased vigilance, testing and return-to-play standards.

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to implement such standards and programs across the wide collection of loosely regulated youth leagues and underfunded school systems in which the game is played.

The question is whether these efforts to transform an extremely dangerous game to a point where it is “acceptably safe” can occur before the growing evidence of the high risk becomes cemented in public opinion.

To date, the primary response to safety concerns has been a call to increase investment in concussion testing and assessment programs, coaches training requirements, increased medical staffing and improved equipment. As evidence of the risk grows, it will be increasingly difficult for youth leagues and schools to obtain liability insurance. The number of companies willing to underwrite the risk will decline and the cost to insure against those liabilities will skyrocket. Where are school districts going to find the money for these additional, expensive safeguards?

Further, the explosion of media coverage relating to brain trauma will lead to a pronounced increase in awareness and concern among parents, community leaders and school administrators that football, as currently played, is simply too risky to sponsor or to allow their children to play.

But even if the “damage dial” could be scaled back from nine on a scale of 10, the danger will still be too great. The very nature and core of the game is rooted in violence. The ability to change the basic culture of the game is marginal, at best. As a result, the force of the “too much risk, not enough reward” argument will simply begin to overwhelm the well-intentioned efforts to make the game acceptably safe.

Simply put, the costs associated with making the game suitably safe — which frankly, is impossible — are going to place a financial and liability burden on school systems that will be unsustainable.

There is also a moral issue at stake. The role of our schools is to strengthen and build young people’s brains. That being the case, how can a school continue to justify and invest significant amounts of money, time, effort and emotion in an activity that endangers them?

These revelations have raised the stakes in the debate regarding the proper role of football in our schools and communities. The issue is, at what point do the long-term physical and health risks to participants overwhelm the diminishing educational and social benefits?

In short, the evidence of the likelihood of young people sustaining brain trauma in football has become so strong that it demands attention and discussion by every board of education in the nation.

This is serious stuff. And the long-term implications for the role that football will play in our schools and communities are significant.

In the end, the questions we should all be asking ourselves are these: Is the role of our schools to sponsor activities that place young people’s brains at grave risk for the entertainment of the community? Or, stated more plainly, should our schools be sponsoring and, indeed, celebrating an activity that scrambles young people’s brains?

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