This is an elaboration of a statement I have made to a few people now and again, and a few more since Noah was born. I hope it doesn’t amount to heresy in too many people’s minds, but since becoming a father, I feel all the more strongly about it. My son, Noah, will not be playing football, at least not in any sort of organized way. Please don’t think him a coward or less of a man–it simply isn’t his choice. If Becky and I have more children, they won’t be playing football, either.
As a band member, and later as a high school and college band director, I have seen more football games than I might otherwise have chosen to see. I’ve been told that you never really understand the game until you’ve played it, and while I’ve played in pickup games, mostly touch or flag, I can’t really say that I’ve played football. Not in the way that some men mean when they talk about their football experiences.
I’ve watched, though. And I watch Ohio State play football, not out of a great love of the game, or out of genuine affection for Ohio State, but because it’s a link to my hometown, and sometimes they show places that I’ve been during the coverage, and it was the Ohio State marching band that first inspired me to be a trombonist in any serious way. I haven’t been to an Ohio State football game since 1987, and I’ve never paid for a ticket–I was an usher with the Boy Scouts back then. Ohio State football reminds me of home, and I live a long way from there.
I don’t know what my parents woudl have said if my brother and I wanted to play. We certainly weren’t encouraged to play or to try out, and until that season ushering at Ohio State, my parents only ever took us to a few games, always Homecoming at Wittenberg University, my father’s alma mater. When I was in first grade, I remember Wittenberg beating Marietta 65-3. I don’t know what the response to a yearning desire to play football would have been; my brother and I both had other interests, and we were pushed toward Boy Scouts by my father, who was the best scoutmaster I ever saw.
Noah will not play football because of the almost certain chance that he will be injured either in practice or in the game. In particular, the chance of brain injury–almost too certain to call it a chance–is what really damns the sport in my book. One person I’ve discussed this with recently objected that helmets keep getting better and better. However, a helmet may protect the skull from direct trauma, but it does little for the brain, floating serenely in the cranium until subjected to the sudden acceleration that can cause concussion, or worse.
Just what does a concussion mean to a young man of football age? The teens are a time when the brain is developing rapidly, but in an odd way–the unused synapses are being closed down, and trauma to the brain at that age accelerates this process. All humans undergo this pruning of neural pathways, but if too few remain, it can become difficult if not impossible to learn later in life. The results of repeated concussions are rapidly becoming clear–greater risk of depression, suicide, and propensity for substance abuse, violent behavior, along with diminished capacity to adapt to a changing and challenging world.
While none of these prospects is good, this last is probably the most concerning. In the 1940s, perhaps it was the case that a young man who suffered a concussion or two would be just fine. The economy was based on manufacturing and agriculture to a far greater extent than today. A person of less-than-perfect mental ability could still find a job that would allow him to support a family in a middle-class lifestyle and possibly even retire comfortably courtesy of strong unions, Social Security and a booming American economy. The work was relatively simple, repetitive and unchanging. A high school diploma was enough.
Today, though, a college degree is the new high school diploma. By the time Noah graduates high school in 2028, it is difficult to imagine that a master’s degree will not be necessary for most desirable jobs. The repetitive, simple job that provides a middle-class existence has been gone for decades, of course, and the truth is that Noah will need every brain cell he can muster to be competitive in a world in which competition is global, intense and technologically driven. To allow him to participate in an activity, namely football, that is predicated on deliberately striking another human being as hard as physically possible, and being so struck oneself, is, to my thinking, the epitome of child abuse.
Here in Oklahoma, and in much of the rest of the country, high school football is a religion, and what I’m saying is heresy. Many of my colleagues, neighbors and students regard their time playing high school football as golden, and eagerly anticipate the day that their sons can put on helmet and shoulder pads. Around here, community leagues begin in elementary school, as was true in my hometown. Even if I had wanted to play football in middle school, I would have been outclassed by my peers who had played years of UA Grid Kid football. What I’m about to say next will anger football lovers even more:
Football must to be banned if the United States is to compete in the 21st century world.
It is no secret that the growing economies, especially China and India, will soon surpass America in nearly every category, at least those in which they have not bested us already. Like Noah, we will need every brain cell we can lay our hands on to be creative, intelligent and tenacious rather than lethargic, beaten-down or worse. We simply cannot sacrifice a generation of our young men in the name of a game.
Maybe an outright ban isn’t necessary. Government can apply a variety of tools to influence behavior. Perhaps denying federal funding to schools who continue to sponsor football teams is the answer. Perhaps a punitive tax on football equipment that would fund the social services required by the victims of concussions and their families. Perhaps a switch to flag football is the answer–an option suggested derisively by one commentator not long ago on national television in response to what he perceived as an overly “safe” call.
Why do we as a society continue to promote this sort of institutionalized violence? As a male, I understand the occasional desire to “knock heads”–I have as much testosterone as the next man. However, if our society isn’t based on the need to subvert those urges, then upon what is it founded? Are we really in need of this kind of ritualized warfare? Are there not more civilized forms of competition just as intense?
Football undoubtedly has benefits for some young men. As with all opportunities for young men to interact with wiser, older men, football allows lives to be changed for the better when a boy who hasn’t had a fair shake encounters men of character. At the same time, though, does the number of injuries and deaths in high school football really justify this? Are there not other chances for young men to encouter the men who will become their mentors and shape them? Wouldn’t a few less traumatically-brain-damaged men be better able to provide this for some boys who don’t currently get it, whether their sons or someone else’s?
Similarly, the argument that football teaches persistence and otherwise “builds character” is technically true, at least for the young men who don’t get cut from the team or have to quit because of injury. But any endeavor worth pursuing and well-persued can teach persistence. I learned it from music, while my brother learned it working on the school newspaper. We also both had a serious dose of it from Scouting and from running our newspaper delivery route (a small business, really). Any activity worth pursuing can teach character and persistence, and possibly without brain-damage an indoctrination of violence.
Perhaps football teaches strategy and tactics. Again, this may be true. It was said that Wellington’s victory at Waterloo was born on the ball fields of Eton and Cambridge. I am not such an idealist to believe that our country will not one day need to again demonstrate military prowess in the fundamental sort of way that football would seem to simulate on a weekly basis. However, I would submit that the boon Wellington and his officers actually got from playing together was not strategic in nature, but rather more to do with command and control, as a 19th-century officer could not immediately know his commander’s wishes in the heat of battle. It was through their personal knowledge of Wellington’s style that his former classmates were able to intuit his intentions. We have the equivalent in the United States, namely in the cadres of officers graduated each year from West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy. Football has little to do with it. The best way to study strategy and tactics is to actually study strategy and tactics, then engage in the most realistic simulations of warfare as possible, not to participate in a game requiring you to knock helmets deliberately with the very people who you will one day depend on as you fight alongside them.
People who know me consider me to be serious (although people who really know me know that I have a lighter side, too). I see nothing wrong with throwing the flag, as it were, on a dangerous activity, and I can only hope that people will read this and understand when Noah doesn’t suit up sometime around 2022 or so. I hope to do as my parents did and present him with other opportunities to build his character, first and foremost providing him with an example, as did my father. I will understand if people my age (and younger, as I’m a little old to be a first-tiem father) continue to let their sons play, but please respect my decision, and don’t try to convince Noah that he needs to play football.