Every autumn, 4 million boys continue a tradition they share with their fathers, grandfathers and leather clad players of old. Football’s unique character and preeminent appeal make it America’s game. Yet today football is under assault, with player safety the stated motivation. Fans fear and detractors hope the game faces an existential crisis. A law to ban football would never pass. The game’s demise, if it comes, will arrive in the great American tradition of all killjoys: the surreptitious executioners of a malign media campaign and the pestilence of lawsuits. The verdict of the few imposed on the many.
America would be the worse if football is diminished or eliminated. Football’s ethos is distinct, strong and important to our country. The opposition to the game is really a conflict about this ethos, a skirmish in a wider clash of ideas.
All sports can be dangerous but the incessant message confronting Americans is that football is uniquely dangerous. This claim, focused on brain injury, is the core argument against the game. But is football uniquely dangerous? For the overwhelming majority of players, youth, high school and college, this appears false.
A 2010 Mayo Clinic study, updated in 2016, found no increase in risk of degenerative brain disease for high school football players versus other varsity sports. The study’s authors remarked, “the risk of high school football players developing degenerative neurological diseases later in life is no greater than if they had been in the band, glee club or choir.”
A 2015 NCAA study found that concussion rates in college ice hockey and women’s soccer exceeded that of football; and wrestling had a concussion rate twice that of football. A 2017 University of Iowa study found that flag football, with no helmets or tackling, caused more concussions than the full contact game. Trampolines and girls gymnastics send a dramatically higher proportion of 5-14 year olds to the emergency room with serious injuries. A University of North Carolina Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research found that between 2002 and 2012 football accounted for 3.8 deaths annually.
Amusement park rides caused more deaths; weightlifting almost twice as many; mountain climbing six times as many; horseback riding 25 times as many; bicycle riding 170 times as many; and swimming 875 times as many. Twelve times more Americans die annually from lighting strikes than playing football. In fact, the average American football player would appear to have a higher likelihood of being struck by lightning than suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the most serious disease found in former professional players.
Yet many parents, misled by headlines, believe participation in football means playing roulette with their sons’ brains. Even the cheerleaders on the sidelines of high school football games have a greater risk of “catastrophic injury.”
In a dissonant age, when every dispute comes furnished with “studies” that prove all sides, resorting to lived experience and common sense seem essential to find the truth. I played football for eight years during high school and college. I had hundreds of teammates, and both programs have had thousands of players since. I am not aware, nor does either program have a record, of a degenerative brain injury or death related to playing football. We know countless fathers, brothers and friends whose years in the game left them only with indelible memories.
Here is an inconsistency. Where is the incessant editorial concern for young female gymnasts, wrestlers, and hockey players? The call to ban trampolines and cheerleading? The repeated headlines about the concussion crisis in women’s soccer?
The media reaction to a recent Boston University study showing a high proportion of CTE in the brains of a non-random, self-selected sample of former players heightens suspicion. The doctor leading the study admitted “all the players in this study, on some level, were symptomatic. That leaves you with a very skewed population” and that no conclusions about CTE can be drawn.
A review of current scientific research on CTE makes nothing so clear as its infancy. Dr. Lili-Naz Hazrati, a brain pathologist at the University of Toronto, said of the Boston University research, “The problem is that these findings are being put out there too fast, and stated too strongly, by one group, before we understand who gets CTE, how it evolves over time, what’s the risk—any of that.” The American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, an organization of brain injury specialists, felt the need to issue a statement to point out that CTE science “is still unsettled and evidence to date should not be interpreted to mean that parents must keep their children off sports teams.” Despite this, major media reports used the study to scourge bloodthirsty fans and call for the banning of football at all levels. One thing is as clear as CTE science is unclear: nothing in this or any research justifies the banning of football.
Every effort to make the game safer is welcome and recent steps have done so at every level. But in the football debate, as in others, “settled science” should not become the bludgeon of a mandated truth. Further, defending football with dueling safety studies fails to acknowledge the actual motivations of its opponents, and wages the debate on ground of their choosing.
The Real Problem with Football
American’s today are confronted with strident new orthodoxies. We need “safe spaces,” “comfort zones,” and must beware the macro hazard of “micro-aggression.” “Silent” sports mitigate “harmful” competitive pressures from zealous parents and coaches who fail to understand that the command voice is an artifact. Association must be strictly coed and scrupulously secular. Physical contact of any kind is circumspect (when I coached AYSO, an official, four rule checklist detailed the approved method for hugging players) and “hitting” is a sinister act in every context.
Now we must adopt definitionally adverse group identities: male/female, black/white, gay/straight. Personal shortcoming and failure are the fault of societal, institutional flaws or enterprising medical diagnoses. Individual agency and accountability are diminished, and with them the integrity of individual achievement. A bonfire to victimhood has been lighted, drawing the powerless individual to its glow. Everyone gets a trophy.
A “football mindset” is spoken of, and it is different. The football field has a zone, but no comfort zone. Everyone yells—fans, players and coaches most of all. “Silent” football? Never. Football stubbornly survives the pressure of Title IX and defies progressive diktat requiring the eradication of any recognition of differences between the sexes. While the high school game welcomes the occasional female, football may be the last major activity in America that remains effectively all male.
Prayer and the Almighty seem like a part of the game. Football encourages and rewards hitting other people as hard as you can. To observe football is not to see adverse groups of races but individual black and white teammates, brothers, embracing in the joy of united struggle. Jack Kemp, the congressman and professional quarterback, was right when he said “the huddle is color-blind.” Players have “assignments” every play. Failure results in your teammates paying a physical price. Perhaps this is why excuses are valueless currency on the football field. Football demands accountability and personal responsibility. There are no handouts, weakness hurts the team. The victim is a pariah on a football field. The laurels of the victor must be won before all.
Football’s opponents are not driven by a concern for its players. Their problem with football is its sacrilege on the pantheon of progressive orthodoxy. The dispute about football is really a clash of Weltanschauungen: “helicopter parenting” and the “therapeutic society” meet the real world.
The School of Football
Football players celebrate the salubrity of being knocked on your ass. The game demands that you get back up. Here is a simple homage to courage, the “first” virtue of the ancients. While football is not alone in this, is there any sport that better instills fortitude, discipline and resolve?
Today, these traits may be perceived as secondary, even archaic, in a world where torpid tolerance is ascendant. But football’s virtues are not anachronisms. Requiring the precise coordination, under pressure, of a large group with widely varying speed, strength and skill, it may be the ultimate team sport. Consider who does America’s fighting. Our warfighters are not the brothers and sisters, daughters and sons, of footballs critics on the editorial staff of the New York Times. They are disproportionately former high school players from states that love football. Those who serve say that football helped prepare them. I know it did me. Oliver Wendell Holmes in his Soldier’s Faith address said, “I rejoice at every dangerous sport which I see pursued…In this snug, over-safe corner of the world we need it, that we may realize that our comfortable routine is no eternal necessity of things, but merely a little space of calm in the midst of the tempestuous untamed streaming of the world, and in order that we may be ready for danger.”
Readying for patrols in places like Afghanistan, American warriors fix loose tourniquets high on their own legs so they might save themselves if a limb is blown apart. One wonders how they regard the hazards they endured playing football?
Surveying the world today, who can conclude that we no longer need such men, Americans of toughness, resolve, and when required, valor? The world, not just in its myriad war zones, is a place of struggle and conflict. The schoolyard, the office, life itself we discover, requires a tested temper to endure and flourish. The lucky learn these paramount lessons young. One such lesson is that the hardest things are the most valuable. We find joy in the revelation that the impossible may be possible, but that such triumph rarely comes before doubt, struggle, even pain. Football teaches this course in the human core curriculum, an offering unavailable in the school of the safe space. Every cadet at the United States Military Academy knows what General Marshall asked during World War II: “I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player.”
I helped coach a youth football team in New York City. One boy was delivered to every practice by his mother who rushed through traffic from her job in a law office. She was a single mom and this was her only child. One day, I asked her why she made this sacrifice. She explained that despite the risks she was hearing so much about she thought she “understood what football stood for” and thought it important her son learn it’s lessons.
The Choice of a Free People
An opponent of football, in arguing for its prohibition, compared it to dog fighting. Football players as unreasoning animals that must be patronized. Do football players need to be protected from their freedom? When those who won’t play the game seek to protect those who do a misunderstanding is exposed.
For players, the willing acceptance of the rigors and considered hazards of football is part of the game’s essential appeal. Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, understood this. He remarked that he believed in God and that man was not “brute” by nature, but “the most competitive games draw the most competitive men . . . And in truth I’ve never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline. There is something in good men that really yearns for discipline and the harsh reality of head to head combat.”
Raw to the modern ear, pre-politically correct, but wrong? Today it is easier to condescend to Lombardi’s statement than to acknowledge its truth. Indeed, as we do about so many contemporary issues we know two things, what we are supposed to think and what we actually believe.
Theodore Roosevelt, football’s champion and ‘savior,’ could have had the gridiron in mind when he spoke of “the person who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” Pat Tillman, NFL player turned soldier, wrote in his letter to himself titled “Decision” about leaving a professional football career to join the U.S. Army Special Forces that football “embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful: courage, toughness, strength, etc.” For him, the combat of the NFL was a “comfortable lifestyle.” But a voice told him, “it is not enough,” and he chose a greater challenge. Goethe noted that “the dangers of life are infinite and among them is safety.” How do those who decry football’s perceived dangers comprehend the decision to attempt Mt. Everest with its one fatality for every 10 successful attempts? The climber Reinhold Messner offered his answer, “without the possibility of death,” he said, “adventure is not possible.”
Football is not the labor of slaves, but the choice of free men. Balancing costs and benefits is the essence of freedom. Today, no player or parent chooses to play football absent a fulsome perception of risk. Should those who choose not to live in the grey twilight have that choice made for them by those who do? Man truly resembles a dog when his freedom is taken from him.
A Question Unanswered
After three decades, I gather not with high school classmates from my French class, student government or teammates from other sports but only with my football teammates and coaches. We speak not of paralysis or CTE, but of the experiences we shared wearing the uniform. The empiricists scrutinizing football might allocate some of their prodigious effort to another important question. Why do millions of Americans look back across full lives, careers and families, and remember so prominently those bruised, mud spattered days of sacrifice and triumph?
The fathers of the Western intellectual tradition taught that life is a striving for human excellence, with strife and suffering its inescapable essence. Not pessimists, quite the opposite, they believed that true happiness comes from man’s hard victory in this struggle to live according to the highest and best in him. Lombardi, football’s Aristotle, perfectly captures the Greek idea of happiness as noble struggle: “Every man’s finest hour, his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear is that moment when he lies exhausted on the field of battle, victorious.”
Lombardi was clear that football is not war, but one of many to recognize its similarities. War, like nothing else, elicits the paradox that is man, selfish and depraved at his worst but also soaring and transcendent. Across recorded history the greatest honor sought and bestowed by man has been glory on the battlefield. Leonidas at Thermopylae, Horatius at the bridge, Henry at Agincourt, Colonel Chamberlain at Little Roundtop, and Major Doug Zembiec, the Lion of Fallujah. Courage, comradeship, honor were the first virtues of men. In many native languages the word for man and warrior are the same. War is terrible, and football demanding, but men who have been to battle together share an experience of brotherhood often unequaled in their lives.
Today “manliness” seems a pejorative. We hear of a “war on boys.” Margaret Mead said that modern America “hamstrung the man.” In an urban/suburban consumer society that grinds down distinctions between men and women has “masculinity” been marginalized? Have we arrived at Nietzsche’s “last man,” deracinated, androgynous, not permitted to play a game because he might get hurt?
Holmes asked, “But who of us could endure a world, although cut up into five acre lots, and having no man upon it who was not well fed and well housed, without the divine folly of honor…” Has the yearning of millennia disappeared from men’s souls? Or do we yet desire to prove our courage on the field? Do we love football because in it we retain a heritage, the quest for honor above all else? Would we, men or women, really want it to be otherwise?
The following variant of a familiar dining table dialogue has practical, medical, and teleological support:
“I want to play football.”
“You can’t, you might get hurt.”
“Well of course I might—and what of it?”
Understanding the value of football helps us defend it with clarity and without reservation. Football is an American tradition that embodies and instills high and important qualities. Just a game, it is true, but in the same way that America is just a country. We still cling to our religion, our guns, and our football.
On a hot August day five years ago, I met one of my sons after his very first football practice. His helmet off, sweaty, we met on the field. I extended my hand with a spontaneous phrase: “Welcome to the brotherhood.”