The War on Football

Under attack, America's favorite sport isn't going anywhere

In recent years, the game of football has been attacked by various segments of society that say it is way too dangerous.

Academics in ivory towers, skittish parents, and people who know nothing of the game are leading the anti-football drumbeat, a self-righteous crusade on the part of many.

Too many concussions, too many players who’ll be scarred later in life, too much of a violent Neanderthal sport, they all argue.

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I have one message for them: Football is here to stay on the youth, college and professional levels.

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Football enthusiasts — and believe me, they dwarf those in number who want to kill the game — won’t stand for anything less.

They’ll be irate if the sport is dismantled. Football is an incredible source of entertainment that is seared into the American consciousness. Sorry, baseball, but football is the real “America’s National Pastime,” having stood as the nation’s most popular sport for decades.

Football is here to stay on the youth, college and professional levels.

Every weekend, high school, pro and college stadiums are packed with fans who hunger to watch their favorite teams. The NFL itself is an $11 billion industry, and the Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks earlier this year impacted the Phoenix area by more than $700 million. It also established itself as the highest-rated television program in U.S. history.

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In other words — the Super Bowl is more than a football game. It’s a grand symbol of American commercialism.

Countering the Narrative
The sport is much safer, actually, than in years past, contrary to the narrative driven relentlessly by the critics. You think the game is dangerous and violent now? From 1900 to 1905, at least 45 football players died, many from internal injuries, broken necks, concussions or broken backs, according to the Washington Post.

Of course, that was back in the day, when the sport was in its genesis. That was when players wore skimpy equipment and most didn’t even use head protection. But those fatal statistics are unfathomable today.

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We all know football is a violent game in which head-related injuries are a distinct possibility. The most serious concern today is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions and hits to the head that do not cause symptoms.

The disease can only be detected posthumously, and dozens of former NFL players have suffered from it.

Concerted efforts are underway to make the game safer on all levels.

At the same time, concerted efforts have been underway to make the game safer on all levels. The NFL has implemented rules that penalize players for leading helmet-to-helmet collisions, hits on “defenseless players” and horse-collar tackles. It also has cracked down on late hits, most notably late hits on quarterbacks. Colleges are following suit.

This is telling. At a recent panel discussion on Capitol Hill on safety concerns in youth football, former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, winner of Super Bowl LX (in 2005), said the way he would teach the art of tackling today is much different from just 10 years ago. He would avoid instructing players to go anywhere near the head and instead bring ball carriers down from the waist and below — the more traditional tackling style.

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The one thing that could hurt football is a loss of interest on the youth level, which is a prime breeding ground for college teams and the pros — and Cowher’s words are a step in the right direction.

Those who have tried to make the game safer deserve accolades. That said, you can’t strip football of its main ingredients and expect it to visually be the same sport.

The reality is that players continue to get bigger, faster and stronger. Many of the hits are like steel going against steel, but it’s the earth-shattering nature of those collisions that draws many fans to the seats. One can only go so far in making the game safer before it becomes too diluted. We’re already seeing some of that today, with officials calling penalties for hits that were commonplace as recently as a decade ago.

Football has its flaws. But the game is so seared into American culture and means too much to too many people who will not wilt in the face of opposition from a select few. And to that I say, “Touchdown!”

Mike Richman is the author of “The Redskins Encyclopedia” and “The Washington Redskins Football Vault” and is co-author of “Joe Gibbs: An Enduring Legacy.”

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