If someone just invented football, would we sanction the game?
That’s an interesting question, considering states have, over the last 20 years or so, sanctioned ultimate fighting and legalized marijuana. We seem to have a certain tolerance for risky behavior. But then neither of those things is as tightly associated with culture and school spirit (at least not openly) as is football.
It’s a question worth considering as training camps get underway from coast to coast, not just for professional players but for all levels, including youths.
With Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger recently wondering aloud whether to retire in the wake of a recent study linking the game to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a large portion of the nation may be heading for an existential crisis.
Could there be life without football?
Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “As much as I want my kids to remember what I did and watch me play the game, I also want to remember them when I’m 70 years old.”
Which — this may shock some fans — is worth more to him than the millions he might yet earn.
It probably won’t shock mothers, many of whom may be wondering whether to let junior strap on the pads this year.
I’ve written a few times about my inglorious high school career. Despite going 1-9 my senior year, I learned a lot about teamwork and discipline, not to mention being gracious in victory (once). I also learned about the violent nature of the game and the injuries it can cause.
I saw teammates carried off with serious knee injuries and broken bones. I don’t remember much talk of head injuries, and although readers of this column may doubt it at times, I never suffered a concussion.
However, it turns out I didn’t know the dangers. In 1976, my senior season, 22 players in middle or high schools were killed nationwide, either directly or indirectly, as a result of the game. That was down significantly from 1968, when 34 kids died, according to figures compiled by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.
Last year, only seven players in that age group died.
When I played, we were told to stay away from water because being thirsty would make us tougher. If we acted loopy after a hard hit, we might sit out a couple of plays until we could remember the snap count again.
Any death is unacceptable, but the game has gotten safer. Coaches are better educated and more aware of dangers. Many high school teams have full-time athletic trainers. Recent studies have found few links between high school football and future cognitive problems.
Still, a mother has to consider whether a path that begins with high school football could lead to football at higher levels, where the links are unmistakable. If Roethlisberger is thinking about long-term health at age 35, why not think about it at 16?
News about football’s existential crisis abounds. The number of high school students playing the game was down 25,901 last season over the season before, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. That was the sixth decline in seven years. The Sporting News reports television ad sales for the upcoming NFL season are the worst in a decade, following a season of disappointing ratings.
Of course, the two are not related, and the decline in participation might be considered statistically negligible considering 1,086,748 high school kids played the game last year.
But there is no question Americans are more aware of the costs of the game than ever before, and that may include a century ago when Theodore Roosevelt threatened to shut the game down.
It truly was a new sport back then. Now it is engrained in the nation’s cultural fabric.
I have a hard time thinking Americans ever will divorce themselves from the game. I also have a hard time believing it ever can be made completely safe.
On the high school level, at least, it is safer than before, and that is encouraging. But the game itself likely always will force us to compare short-term glory to long-term consequences.