Friday, October 30, 2009

How easy is banning football?

Jim poses an interesting argument to banning football below. I started this post as a reply to Jim’s post, I feel like it’s got enough meat in it to serve as its own separate post.

I wanted to play football as a kid. My mom wouldn't let me, because she was a guidance counselor, and she watched one of her students die on the field of a broken neck. Of all the kids, I had to be the one with the responsible parent...

The idea of banning high school and below football has pretty far-reaching impacts that could go beyond football. I guess the question is, if you're going to ban football for minors, what do you have to ban beyond that? Hockey? Baseball? I played baseball up to high school and saw several kids hit in the head, either by pitches or by hard line drives.

An interesting possible solution to this beyond Patrick’s mention of rule changes across the board would be sweeping rule changes at the Pop Warner and high school level. Make it a non-contact game until they get into college. The argument would be “How much can it really prepare someone to play at the college/professional level?” As mentioned, we ban smoking and alcohol for minors. However, we don’t have professional smoking or drinking leagues, and I think we all know how pervasive underage smoking and drinking is.

I don't know if anyone here watches Penn & Teller's "Bullshit." It's on Showtime, a half an hour adult comedy/documentary series designed to debunk popular rumors like the end of the Mayan calendar/world and how good organic food really is for you. I catch it every so often when I like the subject.

They did an episode on video games, specifically on video game violence causing real violence. At the end of the episode, I thought they did a quite powerful summation of the issue, relating it to football. You can watch the clip here.

It's a sticky subject. I'm not necessarily disagreeing with the sentiment of banning the sport, or at least the version we're playing now. But logistically you're not talking about simply throwing a switch and making everything stop. You're talking about a ban on a major staple in our way of life. You're talking about a ban on something that would have a MASSIVE economic impact. Right or wrong, it wouldn't be easy to actually execute, and you can of course be certain it would be met with great resistance.

The resistance is going to be the most difficult thing to overcome in this. Not because of how engrained it is in our world. But because the resistance is going to come from the people that are actually playing the sport! We are clamoring for change, but – unless I am wrong – none of the three of us have children playing football right now. The parents who would want the change will pull their kids out of football. The ones that don’t will let the kids play. And most kids – parents pulling them or not – will likely not want to stop playing.

So if what you have is the participants as well as their parents resistant to making the change, how simple would it be to actually make such a change? Realistically, how would we be capable of making such a change? Where would we even start? It’s not as simple as banning the playing of the sport. Not in any realistic sense…not in this world. It’d be nice to say “You just ban it.” But that won’t happen. To institute real change, you’ve got to be realistic about how you want it done.

I don’t know. I don’t have answers for how to go about doing it. But I think that may be more a function of not caring enough to attempt to initiate that change myself. As a father of two daughters, if I had a child that wanted to play the sport, I’d start reading like crazy on the subject, and make the decision whether or not to allow my kid to play, very similar to the way my parents decided not to allow me to play.

I guess that actually means my answer lies in educating the parents so that they can make the most informed decision for their kids. It’s not a perfect solution, and it’s not the best solution.

But it’s at least a start.


  1. It's as easy as making football too expensive to organize. Assuming that repetitive subconcussive collisions do cause permanent brain scarring and loss of cognition, and assuming that this can be proven, it is only a matter of time before lawsuits start springing up. No waiver signed by a parent will hold up in court.

  2. One would have thought the same with smoking, but despite suits that have found companies responsible for individual deaths, the industry is still fairly robust. And a key component to the plaintiff is that cigarettes are is unlikely to be argued to have the same issue.

    It really depends on how much support there is and the financial support for it, and how liable a court would find a school for allowing people to participate in a non-addictive activity in which the parents allow them to participate. As mentioned in the link I provided, there have been hundreds of deaths directly caused by the sport. Certainly there are thousands of major injuries, possibly thousands every year. Lawsuits haven't been a major issue before, I don't know that it should be assumed they will be now. Football is already known to be harmful to one's health.

  3. Chris, you've already made your long-standing opposition to making radical changes in the interest of youth health and safety clear. If you are so willfully ignorant that you think that a hugely profitable business (tobacco) that has tremendous interest in reaching a one-time settlement is the financial equivalent of not-for-profit youth sports then there is no benefit to continuing this discussion.

    This is new territory. Brain trauma is typically chronic and debilitating. Diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are directly linked to brain injury. These diseases will not be cureable in the foreseeable future (ie: our lifetimes) and cause great distress while representing a great burden financially. These aren't broken legs or even ruined knees. This isn't even death, which is an already known event and the risks already calculable.

    We already see the types of dementia that professional athletes can ultimately endure. What we don't know, but perhaps are beginning to learn, is whether and to what extent youth football can cause lifetime harm.

    You can't sign away your children's health.

  4. No, Patrick, it's not that simple. I'm not making commentary on whether or not we SHOULD ban it or not. I'm trying to put a finger on logistically how such a thing would work.

    You're fooling yourself if you think this is a not-for-profit business you're talking about. There is significant money at stake here across the country.

    This is just a handful of articles talking about money going into various high school programs around the country. And this says nothing about the fact that you're talking about making some pretty dramatic alterations to the pipeline of quality NCAA and professional players. It's simply not realistic to think that the threat of simply sweeping high school and Pop Warner football off the planet would not have drastic economic ramifications for many areas, and would not carry the significant financial weight of the NFL, NCAA and potentially their sponsors behind it.

    Regardless of whether or not it SHOULD be banned, I don't believe this issue is as simple as banning it, nor as simple as lawsuits making it so burdensome it will shut down the sport prior to college across the country.

  5. Sorry Chris. Youth football is not-for-profit by definition. "Money" isn't "Profit". People profiting by it doesn't change its nature, any more than people profiting by the existence of charity hospitals changes their nature.

    In this context Ban is simply a euphemism for Change. Certainly football will continue in some form regardless of its health consequences in its current form.

  6. I agree that some sort of change should be enforced. I just don't know how realistic it is to think that a massive change will happen, at least any time soon. It's not that the school itself profits, it's that too many people profit off the game being played. When significant money is involved, it makes significant change very difficult to actually achieve.

    I also want to see more about how often this sort of thing is actually happening. Are we talking about 10% of kids at risk? 1%? 0.000001%? That certainly can and will make a difference when it comes to determining how big of a situation this becomes.

    It's certainly irresponsible for Goodell to sit in front of Congress and pretend that nothing is happening. It's frankly gross that someone like that can't come out and say "Yes, it seems like something is happening. But we don't yet know what, and we don't know how extensive or how serious the problem is. We need to get to the bottom of it. But none of us knew it was an issue to start with."

    I actually think the first steps should be fairly easy, and wouldn't involve terribly sweeping changes.
    1) Massive helmet technology upgrades. Spend a lot of money to start figuring out how to get helmets that cushion blows better. There has already been some work here, but not nearly enough.
    2) Immediate rules in place for allowance of when kids can return after suffering a concussion. My wife took a terrible fall while ice skating, slammed her head on the ice and suffered a concussion. She wasn't allowed back on the ice for three weeks. It's ridiculous that some of these kids think about playing one or two weeks after, and even worse that the adults responsible for them allow them to.
    3) Doctors not on league/NCAA/high school payrolls on the sidelines for games to evaluate kids and make determinations on whether or not they should be allowed back into the game, and/or just diagnose a concussion in general.

    Whether it's a final answer or not, it's a good start.

  7. Random replies:

    • Just cuz 3 programs in the country manage to make some money, and ESPN plans to televise a few games, does not make high school football "big business". 99.9% of high schools run their athletic departments on a shoestring. Bake sales, that thing where someone donates a car and you spend $5 to swing a sledgehammer at it, etc etc. High schools as a group cannot weather lawsuits. Can't weather even the threat of lawsuits.

    That said, there is one organization with deep-enough pockets to fight lawsuits tooth and nail. It would not shock me to see the NFL step in on the side of any high school or youth league that got sued. They would be motivated to provide high-priced attorneys etc.

    • Baseball, basketball and even hockey, are bad comps for football. It's like the comparison between horse racing and dog fighting. Hockey is just about the most dangerous sport I can think of -- I broke my leg playing roller hockey 6 or 7 yrs ago -- but it's still possible to play hockey without checking. Youth and rec leagues play hockey no-checking, and it's a fine sport: fast-paced, exciting, skills-dependent. Whereas football *requires* a collision on every play.

    • Longitudinal studies.


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