Tuesday, March 5, 2013

President Obama: "Those of Us Who Love the Sport"

Spring is coming, the swallows are returning to Capistrano, and those of us with kids have to start looking at the sports they'll play during the summer.

It got me thinking about an interview President Obama gave in January to Franklin Foer and Chris Hughes of the New Republic. Of all the subjects covered in the wide-ranging discussion, perhaps none received more press in that Super Bowl week than his comments on football and player safety.

When asked if the recent discussion of player injuries impacts his enjoyment of the game, the President responded:
"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."
He goes on to make a distinction between professionals, who are adults, represented by a union and (for the most part) well-compensated for the risks they take, and college players. I'm less interested in that distinction, since I gave up on college football years ago, but his remarks as a whole struck me.

I do have a son. Two of them, in fact, active boys who are in organized sports and love every minute of it. And there is no way in hell I'd ever sign a permission slip to let them play football.

I'm not against them playing tough, physical sports. I've already signed the slip for soccer, and I'd be glad to do so for rugby or hockey. But there's something about football, and the equipment they wear, that encourages reckless and dangerous contact. So long as my consent is required, it's not happening.

Now, does that make me a hypocrite? I love watching others play the game, I dissect and revel and blog at length about watching them play the game, but I won't let me own kids near it. I hope not, largely because I really don't want anybody playing the game in its current state.

One of the touchstones I return to again and again in my writing on football is how added safety equipment has ironically made the game less safe for its players. In calling helmets "the NFL's WMDs", NPR's Scott Simon said "(m)odern polycarbonate helmets have let players weaponize their heads." I couldn't agree more. Players have been granted the dubious gift of short-term thinking, extending their playing careers and their ability to collide while simultaneously passing the consequences down the road. These young men, perhaps more so than most, are understandably disinterested in their lives at forty or fifty. I'd like to see padding of all kind reduced.

Ironically, this was the objection first raised in the 1940s when plastic shells were being developed. One physician who opposed their introduction was Dr. George Bennett, an orthopedic surgeon who specialized in sports medicine at Johns Hopkins. In his practice, Dr. Bennett treated the nation's greatest athletes, from Joe Dimaggio to Johnny Unitas, and he was aghast at what he saw as the destructive power of the helmet. Instead of serving "as a protection against head injury and shock, now it serves as an offensive piece of armor." Worse yet, it was creating an arms race of padding. "In order to protect himself against the jar and injury of the helmet, the underneath equipment has been toughened and increased until every player goes on the field covered in armor, all of it carrying potential injury on every play."

In response to the concerns of Dr. Bennett and others, the NFL actually banned plastic shells over these concerns in 1948, but the ban only survived one year before being lifted. It's time to reconsider that ban again; although they were principally concerned with the damage a player's helmet could do to others, we are now painfully aware that repeated collisions, the kind encouraged by modern padding, do real damage to the man wearing the helmet. Not just concussions, although those are the most dramatic form of injury and focusing on those allows journalists and league executives to avoid the underlying problem, but the small hits that add up, in too many cases, to brain damage, early dementia and worse.

There isn't a soul alive who can claim rugby is a boring game, or a game played by sissies, or whatever objections are currently being raised to safety standards. The biggest difference is that rugby players don't wear body armor. They play a violent, physical game, but have to face the consequences immediately. They can't pretend that their sport is safer than it is, and therefore they don't make it any more dangerous. It's an attitude I think we should bring to the gridiron, instead of kidding ourselves that we need better helmets and higher technology.

There's another issue raised by the President that I think merits serious discussion: his contention that reducing contact "may make (the game) a little bit less exciting". I'm not sure that I can agree with him here.

Defenders of the status quo love to talk about how hard hits are an essential part of the game; indeed, the essential part of the game, and the most popular element to boot. Fans love the big hits, they say. You can't legislate them out of football without destroying the sport's popularity. But where's the evidence for that? Certainly not on the field. The game is more popular than ever, despite the NFL's increasing focus on player safety and despite all the rule changes designed to eliminate those collisions (and despite all the whinging former jocks who moan about "skirts" or "flag football" on ESPN). If violent contact is the point of football, then you wouldn't know it from the fans.

On the contrary, I think the essential spirit of the NFL today lies in the long pass and diving catch. It lies in the quarterback scrambling out of the pocket to find a receiver, not the tackle eventually made to bring him down. It's a passing league, we are told, and most of the excitement in a game comes from a quarterback's arm. It seems pretty clear to me that the NFL could outlaw the most destructive hits without any serious loss of interest or viewership.

I'm glad the President has weighed in, and I'm glad that his words have attracted so much attention. He's right that those of us who love the sport have to keep pressure on the NFL to continue to do the right thing. We can make the sport better for all, and soon we may indeed be able to watch with our consciences clear.

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