Should Football Be Banned?

Football, as I say, combines violence punctuated by committee meetings called huddles. It just replicates the worst aspect of American life.

–          George Will

With the NFL season’s final whistle blown, a lot of Baltimore Ravens fans are waking up with a massive hangover. Ex-Oregon Duck and current Raven Ed Dickson can get fitted for his ring. Another ex-Duck, and current San Francisco 49er, LaMichael James, is left to wonder what might have been…if only he’d been able to hang onto the ball. New Orleans is returning to something resembling normal as football- at least the product on the field- goes on hiatus. NFL players are making tee times and heading off to vacations in warmer climes to rest and recover. Those of us who love the game will hope that this offseason features an ongoing and meaningful discussion about player health and safety.

That football, particularly on the professional level, is a dangerous game isn’t surprising. The game has taken a toll on former players for decades, though the NFL has until now pretended the problem didn’t exist. The league historically has regarded former players as interchangeable parts to be discarded and forgotten once broken and no longer usable. Recent tragedies (Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, among others) and advances in medical knowledge have made player safety a primary concern for many and something the NFL must address.

When the President of the United States publicly voices uncertainty about allowing his son (if he had one) to play football, the issue of player safety can no longer be ignored.

I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football…. And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.

Controlled violence is part and parcel of football. The “train wreck” nature of the game is part of the reason it’s America’s most popular sport. As players have grown larger, faster, and stronger, the hits have become progressively more violent and jarring. At some point the brutality and the concussive force unleashed on virtually every play becomes a significant health risk to players.

I would submit that we’ve reached that point…and that there’s a question we need to ask ourselves:

Should football be banned?

I’m not advocating that football be banned, but it’s a question that should force those who love the game to take a long, hard, and honest look at the risks.

As you ponder that question, allow me to add some historical context. This wouldn’t be the first time in our history that banning football has been considered. And the problems the game faces today are distressingly similar to those the game faced in the late 19th century.

During the late 1870s, football barely resembled today’s game. In many respects, it was little more than a barely controlled riot with a few rules. Almost anything went, and the chaotic nature of the game made it difficult to administer.

Starting in 1880, Walter Camp, a Yale player now known as the father of American football, introduced a series of changes to make the game more strategic. Unfortunately, some ended up making the game more dangerous. The most infamous example was Harvard’s “Flying Wedge,” inspired by Napoleonic war tactics: Offensive players assumed a V-shaped formation behind the line of scrimmage, then converged en masse on a single defensive lineman. “Think of it—half a ton of bone and muscle coming into collision with a man weighing 160 or 170 pounds,” wrote The New York Times in 1892.

This is where another President, Teddy Roosevelt comes into the picture. Football had devolved into a game that could be, and often was, deadly. Despite his near-sightedness, which prevented him from playing football at Harvard, Roosevelt was a huge fan of the game. He relished the game’s violence and brutality, believing it to be a proving ground for the battlefield.

Roosevelt revered football for its contribution to what he called “the strenuous life.” He held no particular sympathy for “the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.” The problem in the early years of the 20th century was that football often was fatal. Into the breach stepped Roosevelt, whom history rightly credits as the man who saved football.

Roosevelt returned from brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 to be confronted by a game whose violence and casualty count had reached disturbing heights. Roosevelt also had a paternal interest in this issue, since his son played on Harvard’s freshman team.

During the Harvard-Yale freshman game, Roosevelt’s son suffered a broken nose, an injury some players and observers contended was deliberately inflicted. That injury was merely a footnote to the overall carnage of the 1905 season, which resulted in 19 deaths and 137 serious injuries.

In the aftermath of the fatalities and broken bodies that defined the 1905 season, Stanford and California switched to rugby.  Columbia, Duke, and Northwestern dropped football. Harvard President Charles Eliot, who considered football “more brutalizing than prizefighting, cockfighting or bullfighting,” hinted that Harvard could be next.

Roosevelt, loathe to see his alma mater drop the game he loved, used the bully pulpit of the Presidency to invite football authorities from around the country to come to the White House. He convinced them to work out a series of rule changes that began the process of making the game safer.

An intercollegiate conference, which would become the forerunner of the NCAA, approved radical rule changes for the 1906 season. They legalized the forward pass, abolished the dangerous mass formations, created a neutral zone between offense and defense and doubled the first-down distance to 10 yards, to be gained in three downs. The rule changes didn’t eliminate football’s dangers, but fatalities declined—to 11 per year in both 1906 and 1907—while injuries fell sharply. A spike in fatalities in 1909 led to another round of reforms that further eased restrictions on the forward pass and formed the foundation of the modern sport.

Football didn’t evolve into a sport free of risk and injury; that was never Roosevelt’s intent. He wanted a game which fairly tested men in a rough and tumble manner without risking death or debilitating injury. Eventually, through the evolution of rules and equipment, Roosevelt’s goal was met.

Neither Roosevelt nor anyone else could have foreseen what brought football to where it is now. Advances in training and nutrition over the intervening 108 years have taken the game to a place unimaginable at the turn of the 20th century.  Athletes in the 21st century are far larger, stronger, and faster than their predecessors. The potential for debilitating long-term injuries is far greater than what Roosevelt decried in 1905. New rules and better equipment have helped reduce the risk and occurrence of catastrophic injury, but those advances haven’t kept pace with the mayhem. The NFL now faces a problem it can no longer ignore or minimize. The possibility of adverse long-term effects from repeated blows to the head are better understood today. In many respects, Roger Goodell finds himself in a situation not dissimilar to what Teddy Roosevelt faced in 1905.

Should football be banned? An argument can certainly be made for that case, but it’ll never happen. Our national obsession has such a powerful hold on American culture that it’s difficult to imagine what might replace it. Besides, what would we do with the first Sunday in February? I’m not certain the NHL, the NBA, or the Professional Bowlers Association is capable of stepping up to fill that void.

Since it’s difficult to imagine banning football (“When football is outlawed, only outlaws will play football….”), how about we address the game realistically? Until rules proscribing a tackler from leading with his helmet are strictly enforced, it will be hard to change on-field behavior. It may take ejections and/or suspensions, but players will adapt; they’ll have no choice.

Coaches at all levels must teach their charges proper tackling techniques. Players must be taught that helmets are protection for their head, not a weapon to be driven into the chest of a quarterback or ball carrier.

It may well be time for President Obama to use his bully pulpit as Teddy Roosevelt did in 1905. I have to assume we value the health and safety of those who play football as much as we love the game itself.  That said, it’s time those charged with overseeing the game take action before fatalities once again become part of the discussion. Beyond that horrible prospect, one should be able to play the game and leave it with his faculties intact.

Football is a brutal, violent sport; that’s part of the reason players and fans love the game. That violence and brutality doesn’t have to leave a player with lingering and/or debilitating injuries. If the right changes are made in training, equipment, rules, and medical care, football can be a safer game.

A game based on the idea of large men colliding with one another at full speed can never truly be considered “safe.” There will always be risks involved, as there is with any sport. Parents will always have to consider the risks and rewards of allowing their children to play football. Players will always have to understand and accept the risks they assume when they take the field. Injury will always be part of the equation, but there’s no reason for death, paralysis, or brain injuries to but anything but exceedingly rare.

NFL players shouldn’t have to wonder what the long-term health effects of their playing career might be. I hope this offseason will set the game on the road to becoming, if not safe, then certainly safer. Then those of us who love the game won’t have to spend so much time trying to quell our restive conscience.

Jack Cluth is on Twitter. Follow him at @yuppieskum

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