Should consenting adults be allowed to play football?
Prior to a debate on the subject at New York University earlier this month, 53 percent of the audience opposed a ban on college football (and just 16 percent supported). Following the debate, 53 percent of the audience supported a ban.
That dramatic opinion shift comes in the wake of several decleaters to the game’s reputation.
In March, the NFL came down hard on the New Orleans Saints, whose bounty program offered financial incentives to defenders for injuring opposing players. More than 1,500 players have joined lawsuits against the league for not informing them of the dangers of the game. The suicide of Junior Seau, whose extremely long and violent NFL career unleashed not unreasonable speculation that so many jarring hits may have unmoored the beloved linebacker’s mental circuits, has hurt the league worse in every way imaginable than the Saints or the suits.
“American football is dying,” John Kass writes in the Chicago Tribune. “It’s about time.” He thinks parents will forbid their children from playing, thus starving the NFL of fans and participants. For parents who shuttle their kids to Pop Warner practices, he advises: “So why not make it simple and just give the kids packs of cigarettes instead?”
There’s strong evidence, not speculation, that cigarettes cause cancer. There’s no evidence, just speculation, that football caused Junior Seau to kill himself. Writers making connections between the self-administered demises of two retired stars (Seau and Dave Duerson) and the gridiron might as well ponder the pitfalls of their own profession. Do the unhappy endings of Ernest Hemingway, Hunter Thompson, and Arthur Koestler demonstrate a link between scribbling and suicide?
Journalists have parlayed a few tragic anecdotes among tens of thousands of retired professional athletes into a national anti-football frenzy — in a football-crazed country, no less. But statistics, experience, and observation strongly suggests that the people playing football are healthier than those watching it — and even those refusing to watch.
A government study commissioned by the NFL Players Association found that athletes in the league lived longer than their male counterparts in American society. The study looked at 3,439 men who played for five years or longer in the league between 1959 and 1993 and discovered 334 deaths. Had the results mirrored statistical norms among American men, the researchers would have found 625 deaths. It turns out that professional football players have lower rates of cancer and heart disease.
Who would have guessed that there are health benefits to all that running, jumping, pushing, and pulling?
The number of football deaths at all levels has fallen dramatically over the last half century. Present hysteria aside, rule changes and advances in equipment have made it a safer game. During the second half of the 1960s, brain-injury deaths averaged more than 20 per year for football players. That figure is now less than five per year in a sport played by millions.
Perhaps four deaths annually, and an uncountable number of concussions, is an unacceptable price for what amounts to an amusement. Former American Spectator writer Malcolm Gladwell said as much in that NYU debate by wondering aloud about the ethics of watching a game in which contestants risk life and limb. But every year about 40 Americans die skiing, about 800 die bicycling, and about 3,500 die swimming.
Are those dangerous activities permissible because they haven’t captured voyeurs the way the NFL has?
Like football, there are benefits to skiing, cycling, and swimming. There aren’t figures on how many lives those activities extend and enhance. But sensible people know that skiing, cycling, and swimming are on the whole good for you.
So is football.
When I played in high school, I spent five to six days a week working out in the weight room and sprinting on the track in anticipation of the season. I strangely ran with weighed-down tires roped to my waist, broad-jumped my way up stadium bleachers, and imbibed powder-based concoctions that the vitamin store insisted were healthy but that my palate insisted were not. All that trouble resulted in a touchdown reception, a fumble recovery, and a few special teams tackles. I spent most of my senior year on the sidelines rather than on the field.
Football never bruised my brain. It bruised my ego.
One senses an ego bruise may be responsible for the football-phobic jumping on the pile. Eggheads resenting all the attention jocks received way back when now relish bestowing the wrong kind of attention upon them. Thus, a cultural tic masquerades as a public-health crusade.
It’s a shame that the smart-set isn’t smart enough to grasp the benefits of contact sports.
One rarely sees neighborhood kids in pickup football games anymore. They’re too busy playing video games, text messaging, and friending strangers on Facebook. The unhealthy aversion to football (and other sports not named “soccer”) has little to do with head injuries and much to do with an indoor society that’s lost its head. Surely strenuous outdoor activity is a fine remedy for what ails climate-controlled, obese, antiseptic adolescence.
Playing football is good for you. Being a wuss isn’t.