January 2014

Chill Winds Blowing for America's Favorite Game

Author: Frank Dunne Jr.

College bowl games. The BCS Championship Game. NFL playoffs. Super Bowl Sunday on the horizon. Football fan nirvana. It must be January. I’m fired up, but something doesn’t smell right on the gridiron lately. I see red flags all over the field, and they’re not coach’s challenge flags. Remember when football was just football? Now we get Bob Costas lecturing about social issues. We get whining about bullying in NFL locker rooms. Worst of all, concern over serious injuries is morphing into a campaign to either reduce the NFL to the NFFL (National Flag Football League) or, in some circles, to ban the sport altogether.

We covered the so-called controversy over the Washington Redskins’ name in last October’s A Line in the Sand column, but that was before Bob Costas added his “me too” to the cacophony of pundits, politicians, pedagogues and poseurs who contend that the name is offensive to American Indians, so I’m giving you an extra point here.

Maybe you were watching when Costas spent his Sunday Night Football halftime segment pontificating and prattling without offering a shred of evidence for his declaration that “Redskins” is an insult and a slur. Never mind what you think. Never mind Annenberg Institute and AP polls revealing, respectively, that 90 percent of American Indians say the name doesn’t bother them and only 11 percent of Americans think the team should change their name. Costas knows better.

Costas could have called his colleague Rick Reilley over at ESPN.com. Reilley published a great column, “Have the People Spoken,” in which he cited multiple sources, some actually American Indians, concurring with those poll numbers, but he didn’t. It turns out that a lot of high schools with American Indians making up the majority of their student bodies bear the nickname “Redskins,” and they wear it with pride. Costas would also have learned from Reilley’s column that Oklahoma means “red people” in the Choctaw language. Should we change the name of the whole state?

By the way, Costas has been a prominent sports commentator for decades, and the Redskins have been the Redskins for his entire career, yet he’s had nothing to say about it until 2013. Why? Because that’s when it became popular. That’s when it became “cool.” So Costas followed the intellectual path of least resistance and now he’s in with the in crowd. His little tirade was a striking illustration of the arrogance, ignorance, and hypocrisy that colors the entire crusade against the Washington Redskins.

Those people oughta mind their own business and stop bullyragging the Redskins. They’ve got enough to worry about…they stink. Speaking of bullies, did you ever think you’d see the day when “bullying” and “NFL locker room” would appear in the same sentence? Well here we are, thanks to the Miami Dolphins and a heavy dose of societal hypersensitivity. You know the story. Richie Incognito sent a nasty text message to Jonathan Martin, and it so upset Martin that he left the team and tattled to his agent.

Yeah, I know. The text contained a racial slur. It’s uncalled for. It’s disgraceful. Incognito’s a jackass. I get all that, but what frosts me about the whole thing is that it’s even a story, and that the word bully entered the picture as if these were two six-year-olds on a playground.

C’mon Man! These guys are 300-plus-pound NFL offensive linemen. I’ve heard a fair share of current and former players suggest that Martin should have settled it in the locker room or in the parking lot after practice. But he didn’t. He took his bawl and went home. Here’s a perspective, let’s get in the Wayback Machine and change the names from Miami Dolphins, Richie Incognito, and Jonathan Martin to Pittsburgh Steelers, Jack Lambert, and Mean Joe Greene. Do you think if anything like this were to happen at all, it might have gone down differently? One more time: C’mon Man!

Football is a rough game. Guys get hurt. It’s been that way for more than a century, but that doesn’t stop nearly 3 million youth league players and over million high school kids from flocking to the game and strapping on a helmet every year. Sadly, there’s an element out there trying to take it all away. Sadder still, the movement has gained traction at an alarming rate in the past two years.

The recent tragic suicides of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and a few other former NFL players added fuel to the fire, prompting football’s detractors to declare the game too dangerous to continue. Mind you, head injuries and their long-term effects are a serious concern, and nobody is denying that. But, as author Max Boot points out in “In Defense of Football” from The Wall Street Journal’s August 17-18, 2013 weekend edition, “It’s a rough, sometimes dangerous sport, but critics exaggerate football’s risks.”

Boot does a nice job objectively presenting both sides of the story, citing published research containing evidence that NFL players, particularly those who have suffered concussions, are more susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and clinical depression. On the other hand, research also exists to show that concussions suffered while playing contact sports in college don’t necessarily lead to cognitive impairment beyond normal aging; and one study of 3,000 former NFL players found that they outlive the general population.

Of greater concern, and rightly so, to most folks, particularly parents, is the danger to youngsters who lace up the cleats but never move on to college and pro football. On the one hand, a 2002 Mayo Clinic survey of 915 football players aged 9-13 found injuries to be relatively rare, and mostly bumps and bruises rather than something more severe. Notwithstanding that, the argument that the real danger is in the cumulative effects of repeated impact to bodies that young is a valid one. Personally, I’m not 100 percent convinced that young kids should be held out of contact sports altogether, but I’m not 100 percent convinced the other way either. Does a player really have to start at nine years old to be successful? One anecdotal example suggests that he doesn’t. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady didn’t play full contact football until high school. Three Lombardi trophies and two Super Bowl MVPs later, I don’t think it held him back.

The point is, football can be dangerous, especially at the higher levels, but the evidence just isn’t there to condemn the game to death. Let’s look at some thought-provoking numbers from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. These are the estimated number of injuries resulting in hospitalization or death by sport or activity in 2012:

Bicycles & Accessories: 42,221, Exercise and Exercise Equipment: 31,844, ATVs, Mopeds, and Minibikes: 28,040, Football: 10,115, Basketball: 8,246, Baseball and Softball: 4,573.

Granted, football is the only activity on this list in which the type of contact that causes injuries is naturally part of the game, but if eliminating these kinds of injuries is the goal, why aren’t the sports that statistically result in greater numbers of severe injuries and deaths under the same scrutiny?

And, it’s not as if football’s governing bodies aren’t paying attention or taking action. The NFL and college football programs have made changes in how they deal with head injuries in recent years, and it’s not solely a result of the media attention; it’s also because team medical staffs’ knowledge of how to recognize concussions and what to do about them is far greater than in the past. For example, at the NFL and college levels, players aren’t allowed to return to a game or practice after sustaining a concussion, and recovery is more closely monitored than ever before. In the past, players were known to take the field a week after sustaining a concussion. Now it’s not uncommon for a player to sit out several weeks.

The game has been here before. As long ago as 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt convened a summit with football coaches in response to 18 reported fatalities on football fields that year. That event spawned the introduction of the leather helmet and the forward pass, which made the game safer and, frankly, better. Can you imagine football without the forward pass today?

By the 1960s, football had evolved into something more like the game we know today, and players were getting bigger and stronger resulting in rising numbers of severe injuries and fatalities. This led to rule changes, including banning leading with the head when tackling. Between 1968 and 1977, instances of fatalities on football fields across the nation fell from 36 to 10. Not that 10 fatalities are okay or acceptable, but refer back to the Consumer Product Safety Commission statistics. If we decide to eliminate all activities that might result in injury or death we’d never leave the house; even then you might fall down the stairs and break your neck.

To give you an idea how far some critics are willing to go, author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece for The New Yorker in which he likened football to dog fighting, using the flawed logic that since dog fighting was legal at one time, but now is not, football should suffer the same fate. What he fails—or refuses—to recognize is that two football teams don’t take the field with the expectation that one will kill the other, and that football players choose to play football. Gladwell’s comments are crazy, but what I find more disturbing is other names joining the chorus of boos, journalists who have spent lifetimes building up the game, and their careers, now positioning themselves as the ones to destroy it from within. People like Frank Deford, formerly of Sports Illustrated, who now claims that football destroys the soul, and Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe who has called on the mothers of America to forbid their sons from playing football. What if they did?

Take football away from the kids and you take away lessons in hard work, teamwork, discipline, handling success, dealing with failure, and for some, a chance for a college education. Of approximately 68,000 college football players in a given year, about 32,000 are on scholarship. Don’t laugh. Yes, we hear all about those players who never go to class and never graduate, but they’re a fraction of the total. There are fewer than 2,000 total roster spots in the NFL, and most of them are already filled on draft day. The vast majority of scholarship football players know they’ll never get a sniff at playing pro ball. For them, football is a vehicle to a college degree and a career in the real world.

There’s another angle. If the NFL disappeared from the American landscape, the economic impact would be immense. A few years ago as a player lockout loomed, SportsNetworker.com compiled data on the economic impact of a lost NFL season. Here’s a taste of what that would have meant:

The 31 NFL cities would lose a combined $4.9 billion ($160 million per city) in revenues and wages. That includes everything from player salaries and stadium worker wages to hotels, restaurants, bars and all other local businesses that earn revenue and pay wages directly or indirectly related to a game when it is played.

Game day Sundays during the NFL season account for 20 percent of weekly sales at sports bars nationwide and 33 percent of annual sales at bars located in NFL cities. That would all be lost.

Each NFL city would lose 3,000 seasonal jobs.

All of that barely scratches the surface, because it doesn’t account for the billions in advertising revenue to media that carry the games or cover the sport throughout the year, or a huge retail market for apparel and gear for example.

So to all of the detractors and haters I’d say, be careful what you wish for, or at least listen to what Teddy Roosevelt had to say a century ago: “It is to my mind simple nonsense, a mere confession of weakness, to desire to abolish a game because tendencies show themselves, or practices grow up, which prove the game ought to be reformed.”

It was true in 1907 and it’s true today. 

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