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Football Under Fire

The signs are becoming more ominous.

Multiple studies have confirmed football’s relationship to the degenerative brain injury known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). A number of books, documentaries and movies have heightened public awareness and focused media attention on this issue. Class action lawsuits filed by ex-players against the NFL and NCAA have been settled for hundreds of millions of dollars. In the interest of player safety, concussion protocols have been developed, regulating a concussed player’s return to action. Leagues have mandated more medical personnel on the sidelines and in the press box. Targeting penalties—for hits on defenseless players and leading with the helmet—have been called with increasing frequency. The Ivy League and Canadian Football League have eliminated contact practices. The NCAA has limited the number of two-a-days and full contact workouts.

Clearly, America’s favorite sport is showing some signs of stress.

After denying any link between football and brain injury, in the face of growing incontrovertible evidence, the NFL has finally acknowledged the connection and instituted more rules to promote player safety. Meanwhile, TV viewership has declined, empty seats have become more common, and franchises have been moving. How much of this is due to too much—or too little—violence is unclear, but the warning signs are present.

Still, the most alarming trend to the folks at the NFL, NCAA, Football Coaches Association and National Football Foundation/Hall of Fame isn’t in the pro or college game, but at the youth level—where the future of the sport lies—because increasing numbers of mothers are telling their sons, “You can’t play football.”

The number of young boys playing football in the U.S. has shrunk significantly, by as much as 25,000 according to one study. Without enough athletes to field a team, many high schools across the country have been forced to drop football. Participation in Pop Warner leagues has plummeted. Leagues that used to field five teams per age group are having trouble fielding more than one. High-profile parents from Barack Obama to Brett Favre have publicly questioned whether they’d allow their sons to play football. And articles in leading newspapers and magazines have asked, with increasing frequency, “Is Football Dying?”

This isn’t a new problem. Back in 1906, after 19 athletes died playing college football, President Teddy Roosevelt convened a meeting of school presidents and sports leaders in Washington that led to the formation of the NCAA. Its main charge was to ensure player safety. More than one hundred years later, the problem still persists, with no obvious solution in sight.

Despite the increased awareness, the new rules concerning targeting and player safety, and the better training and equipment, several athletes still die every year playing football (63 since 2000 in high school and middle school, five already this year in college). And athletes still get hurt badly playing football on a regular basis. This year in the NFL, a number of the league’s highest-profile stars have been lost for most, or all, of the season—Giants’ wide receiver Odell Beckham, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Houston defensive lineman J.J. Watt, Arizona running back David Johnson, and Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck, to name a few. Countless other players, unknown at present, will experience debilitating after-effects due to CTE when their careers are over.

Where will this end? Is the game of football really in jeopardy? And, as an old friend of mine asked recently, “in the interest of player safety, are we seeing the game fundamentally changing for the better or worse.”

Lots of fans, including the one in the White House, have decried the fact that the game is no longer violent enough. All the penalties and targeting calls have changed the nature of the game, the argument goes.

A few weeks ago, two of Stanford’s best defensive players—lineman Harrison Phillips and linebacker Peter Kalambayi—were ejected for targeting in the final minutes of the Cardinal’s 23-20 win over Utah. Both players were flagged for helmet-to-helmet contact with Utes’ quarterback Troy Williams. Earlier in game a Stanford ball carrier lowered his head to bull forward and Utah safety Marquise Blair lowered his head even further to avoid contact with the helmet. In that case, after a review, no targeting call was made, but the play illustrated the problem defensive backs face when a runner lowers his head. How can the defender—with a split second to react—make the tackle without hitting the offensive player’s helmet?

While it’s true that targeting rules, in some cases, make it harder to play defense, protecting defenseless players from blindside blocks or hits with the crown of the helmet is necessary, in my view, for the good of the game. I love football, believe it teaches valuable lessons about life, and want to see it endure and flourish.

But there are no easy answers here. Some radical solutions have been proposed. Such as going back to leather helmets or helmets without face masks, so players would be less apt to lead with the head. Seahawks' coach Pete Carroll and others have suggested requiring coaches to teach shoulder tackling, the technique used in rugby (and in earlier times in football).

Those ideas are worth exploring, but it’s not clear that any will work. The simple fact is, as the great Vince Lombardi used to say, football is not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport. As players have gotten bigger, stronger, and faster, those collisions have gotten more and more violent.

That is part of the game’s appeal. If not managed successfully, it could also prove to be its undoing.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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