National Commentary

Should Football Be Outlawed?

I’ve been eager to write on this subject for months. I chose to delay it until after the season ended for my local high school because I didn’t want it to be unduly disruptive. However, there are two new books that every parent with a kid who plays or wants to play football should read.

The first is by Gay Culverhouse, former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, entitled, “Throwaway Players: The Concussion Crisis from Pee Wee Football to the NFL” (Behler Publications, 2011).

The second is by veteran health and sports journalists Linda Carroll and David Rosner entitled, “The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic” (Simon and Schuster, 2011).

Both books have been subjects of thoughtful reviews by medical professionals, who concur with their findings.

The alarming fact is that in the high-contact sports of football and ice hockey are producing almost epidemic levels of “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” a form of brain dementia, resulting from repeated concussions.

Especially harmful are what Carroll and Rosner call “second impact” concussions, when a second hit to the head follows in a relatively short period after a first. In football, such incidents are highly common. In fact, they are routine.

Long-term effects of such brain damage have so far been mostly anecdotal, but the accounts described in these books, including of former National Football League stars, are tragic, indeed.

Way back when football first gained a foothold on American culture, in the first decade of the twentieth century, President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to outlaw it. That came after the football season in 1905 when 25 players died and 150 were seriously injured, even as the number of games was a tiny fraction of what we have now.

State legislators introduced bills to ban the sport, editorials called for shutting it down and colleges suspended games and even closed their programs permanently. President Roosevelt, who had previously hailed such “rough, manly sports,” changed his opinion dramatically. “Change the game, or forsake it,” he thundered. “I demand that football change its rules or be abolished.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was formed, and instituted rules changes, including outlawing the so-called “flying wedge” formation and opening the game up with the forward pass. While these moves reduced the fatality rate, “they created a false sense of security regarding head injuries,” Carroll and Rosner wrote, and the NCAA did not make helmets mandatory for another 30 years.

But as dangerous as football has continued to be, ice hockey is worse. “If any team sport could challenge football for sheer brutality and dangerous machismo, it was ice hockey,” wrote Carroll and Rosner. “Hockey offered its own brand of violence – high flying collisions, head-rattling bodychecks, teeth-loosening fisticuffs – along with a play-through-pain mentality every bit as ingrained as football’s.”

In fact, National Hockey League players today are five times more likely to suffer a concussion than those in the National Football League.

All of these factors were escalated with the advent of major deals between pro football and an emerging television industry in the early 1960s, correlating with a notable shift in dominant overall American cultural values around that same time.

The rise of post-modernism substituted power for compassion, spelling the death of liberalism that was associated with the War on Poverty and the high ideals of the nation’s assassinated leaders, JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King. Amidst the anarcho-hedonism that swept over the national psyche, including by the way of mainstreaming the “counterculture,” violent sports fit right in.

TV promotions reflected this, such as “The hardest hits are on Fox!” and “Shortness of breath. Nausea, Disorientation. Memory loss. The fun begins on 8 p.m. Sunday night. NFL on TNT.”

As Culverhouse wrote, “player worship” helped spread this culture of heightened violence all the way down to “pee wee football.”

The former president of a pro football team herself, she wrote that NFL leaders are “liars and sneaks” with little regard for the public good. “Helmets have no special powers,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, when a player straps on a helmet, he thinks his head is invincible.”