It would seem there is almost nowhere on the planet you can go without hearing about the safety of football players. ESPN recently did a five-day special on concussions. The newspaper is filled with stories and editorials not unlike this one that ask the same questions: what can be done to prevent these long-term injuries?
Is that really the question to ask? No one ever asks, “Why do we not just get rid of football entirely?” It has proven over several decades to be dangerous to a player’s health. One report suggested that a year’s worth of NFL contact was worse for your body than smoking two packs of cigarettes every day for a decade.
The obvious answer is the correct one: because it is popular. It is the most watched sport in the United States. The Super Bowl averages over 105 million viewers every year. The first-round of the NFL Draft pulls in almost 40 million. The viewership, on average, for NFL games is greater than that of NASCAR events, MLB games, and NBA games put together.
As the gladiatorial events of Rome, the rise of professional boxing, and the recent rise of mixed martial arts can attest, violence is cathartic. There is something inherently interesting about watching people come close to injury every time they participate.
Getting rid of football is a fool’s dream, and it should be. Violence is not, and should not be, the leading draw for the NFL. The athletes that play for millions on Sunday are some of the most talented in the world at what they do, and the displays of athletic prowess should be the main draw.
High school football, however, may become a different story. As more reports come out about the long-term risks of playing, and the insurance on players goes up, more and more school districts will find it difficult to pay for a team. Obviously poorer schools will be hit first, but it will spread.
This seems like a nightmare, especially in places like Florida and Texas, where high school football games can regularly draw 30,000 people, where the stadiums for the high school teams resemble college arenas, and where they have full size practice fields that could pass for most team’s home turf. For many of these schools, football pays for itself in the budget many times over, and in fact may support many others functions of the school. Losing these teams would be devastating.
The solution is easier than it seems. The first priority for every coach should be to get his kids to pay more attention to fundamentals and less to SportsCenter. A big hit that makes top plays may look cool, but the hits are regularly unsafe. When the 2006 NFL promotional video was released, of the hits on the tape, 72% would be illegal. A tackle where you wrap your opponent, and drive them to the ground may not look cool, but it works just the same and is safer.
Secondly is the expensive, but needed, solution. Many high schools still use old model helmets that may not protect as well as once thought. The new impact reduction helmets may be expensive, but so is the cost of someone not remembering their wife’s name at 35. These helmets should be mandatory at the major football high schools, where players are larger and faster, and should be phased in to other high schools within the decade. Any major school that complains about the price should look at their 55,000 seat stadium and rethink their priorities.
High school students love playing football. Parents love watching them play. Losing high school football would be a travesty that can be averted. Watching every player walk off the field under their own power is cathartic too.