Last year the NFL settled a massive $750M class action law suit with over 4,000 of its former players. The claim against the NFL by the former players was that they had suffered neurological damage as a result of their injuries sustained playing football. Additionally, the suit claimed that the NFL was aware of the risks associated with playing the sport yet mislead the players about them. The direct result of the lawsuit was that former players diagnosed with neurological disorders can now receive financial compensation on a scale relative to the severity of their disorders and their age. The indirect impact of the lawsuit and other high profile tragedies including retired NFL players is that families across America have become deeply concerned about the potential health impacts of letting their children play football. As the focus on the medical risks of playing sharpens, correctly so, parents will hopefully be armed with the information to help them understand the risks involved in letting their children play. What we don’t truly understand, is what is the risk if collectively, we all decide not to let them play. When you take the time to consider what that would mean, you see that it goes far beyond the loss of our favorite source of weekend entertainment.
Why Football Matters
Before I wanted to be a college graduate or a naval officer or a father or a corporate leader, I wanted one thing. I have never wanted anything more since; maybe as much, but never more. That was to play linebacker for the Holy Spirit Spartans, my hometown high school football team. As a kid, I looked up to the players on the state champion teams of the 80’s and 90’s as if they were pros. I can still remember their numbers and positions. None of them ever went on to play professionally. Almost none went on to play big time college ball. But that didn’t matter to me. And I wasn’t alone. High school football where I grew up was a big deal. The Friday night games were packed and the atmosphere was electric. If you weren’t playing in the games, you were attending them. My brothers played. My father played. His father played. It’s just what you did. It still is and that matters. It matters because high school football is one of the things that binds many communities together. It’s one of the things that makes us feel more permanent in a location; less transient. Now, it is possible, in time, for some other phenomenon to take the place of football and play the same role in our culture, even in the most hardcore regions. It’s just hard to imagine what it would be or how long it would take. If football dies, at least for the immediate future, this part of our local communities dies with it.
What Football Does
When it was my turn to play, football provided me with an invaluable experience that was absolutely critical to my development as a man. Football is a tremendous commitment. It’s the only sport that I know of where the practice to game ratio is so drastically lopsided. You practice 5 to 6 times more than you actually play. And the practices can be fun…but they’re hard. And you have to do them or you can’t play. Not because of principle, but because it takes that much practice to actually get a team to do the basic functions required to compete. Football requires commitment like few things a teenager can experience. And commitment is a hard thing to teach in environments where it’s not required.
Then there’s leadership. I learned more about leadership staring into ten sets of eyes in a huddle and calling a defense then I learned during four years at the Naval Academy. That’s not a knock on Navy. It’s a credit to the experience of football. Years later in some distant corner of the planet I would be laying somewhere too tired to take off my gear and body armor after a long, hard mission. It sounds strange but it’s one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. And it’s the same one I felt sitting exhausted on a long bus ride home, having left everything on the field in a high school football game. Clearly football is not the only thing that can prepare you for that experience. But nothing presently does it on the scale that football does for American high school boys.
Why Football Works
1.1 million boys played high school football last year. That is just shy of double the next most participated sport by high school boys in America, track and field. Clearly the game’s popularity and tradition are part of that. There’s something very different about football though that is actually at the root of its dominance in participation. More kids play football, because they can. It’s actually the mechanics of the game itself. The roster limit of an NFL team is 53 players. Major League Soccer is 30. Major League Baseball is 25, NHL Hockey is 23 and NBA basketball is 12. There’s a pretty obvious reason why the rosters are so big. There are 22 starting positions on a football team. If you add in special teams, you throw in at least another 22 distinct roles that impact the game, more if you actually want to become more specialized. Those 44 plus roles come in all different shapes, sizes and different athletic ability.
The average size of a college Division III offensive lineman is 6’1″, 266 pounds. The average receiver is 5’11” 180 lbs. The average running back 5’10, 190 lbs. The average quarterback, 6’1, 190 lbs. Kicker? 5’11”, 175 lbs. You get the point, they come in almost all sizes. Probably more importantly, these rolls have differing requirements of athleticism. Some roles require speed and agility, some strength and power. The others are a sliding scale of both. The trick to playing football is finding the right roll (remember, there’s 40 so there’s lots to choose from) and executing non-specific acts of athleticism within the framework of a heavily dependent team concept. What do I mean by non-specific acts of athleticism? I mean things kids generally know how to do or can be taught quickly, like running and tackling. The opposite of that type of skill would be learning to hit a baseball. The only way to learn how to hit a baseball is to hit a baseball. And if you haven’t done it before you get to high school, you won’t be able to play. The other larger team sports like baseball and hockey are full of specific acts of athleticism. Which means that football, at least when it comes to boys, is presently irreplaceable.
When you break down the numbers and logic behind who can participate, you might actually change your hypothesis about football’s role. Football may not have so high a participation level because of it’s popularity within our culture. It may be popular within our culture because of the high participation level it uniquely allows. Which leads us to the last, and probably most significant point. High school boys playing football spend about 15-17 hours a week in organized, supervised athletic engagements. There are clearly risks associated with playing a contact sport, especially for those that go on to play as long as the pros do. But when you take the time to look at it through the lens of at-risk, idle high school aged boys and compare it to the massive hole we would have to dig out of to engage with them to replace it, it’s pretty clear. The answer to the question, what will happen if we don’t let them play is an outcome that we aren’t prepared to deal with on a much deeper level than we might think.
Beyond the utility of how football develops and builds our high school age boys, there’s one last thing. Football is America. And though America is more than football, there are fewer things that are woven into our culture as deeply. I was overseas 14 years ago when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 took place. Months later when I was on my way home, I found a rolled up Sports Illustrated issue on a couch in a hotel. I opened it, and read about the week that football returned and for the first time in months, I felt like there was something left of the home that I left months earlier. That’s the type of emotional connection that helps define a people, and it’s not easy to replace. I hope that they continue to find ways to make the great game safer. I hope that we continue to research so we can more clearly understand the risks to those who play it. And I hope 50 years from now, our great game is still being played. Because football matters.