Tuesday, August 7, 2012

love it or leave it

Football, as a game and as an industry, is coughing out its dying days and there is no cure for what ails it.

At least, that what George Will, a prominent American political thinker and opinion leader, would have you believe in his latest column penned for Sunday's Washington Post. While I respect Mr. Will and his thoughtful approach to most subjects he explores, he is dead wrong about America's favorite game.

By now, the controversy surrounding head injuries in the National Football League and their potential effect on past and current players has made headlines in just about every newspaper and magazine in the country. Most notably flung into the public consciousness by the tragic suicide of Junior Seau this spring, at just the age of 43, CTE (or chronic traumatic encephalopathy) resulting from repeated blows to the head from extended professional football careers has become the target for blame on player's post-career health problems, mental issues, depression, and even suicide. The move by the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell in recent years to crack down on hits that lead to head injuries and protect players against themselves when it comes to returning from head injuries has only served to strengthen the call for more research, and ultimately, repurcussions when it comes to the post-career ailments of football players. Drastic rules changes and even the specter of Teddy Roosevelt are bandied about today as potential solutions for an ailing game.

But not by George Will. Mr. Will says the game is as sick as the players who have suffered from their participation in it and the prognosis is just as bleak.

However, there are just too many facts left out of the discussion.

For instance, Will quotes back the numbers of players who are over 300 pounds and participating in the professional game today. While that numbers was just three in 1980, it has now ballooned to 352. Football is literally becoming much bigger as game. Of course, what he fails to account for is that almost all of the players currently participating in the sport at the 300-plus level are offensive and defensive linemen. These are not the players typically involved in head injuries as those take place far more often in the secondary with running backs, linebackers, wide receivers, safeties, and even quarterbacks. The biggest linemen are much more likely to suffer from hip and knee problems or cardivascular issues as a result of their playing weight than they are brain trauma. But one is forced to wonder: Are these men big because they play football or do they play football because they're big?

Football is not the cause of obesity. If anything, heftier players probably maintain healthier levels of fitness through participation in the game.

It should be noted at heart that George Will is a baseball aficiado and old enough to remember when that sport was America's preeminent game. It's not unlikely that he yearns for a return to an era in which that was the case. So, naturally, he can't critique the game without insulting its fans.

Football is entertainment in which the audience is expected to delight in gladiatorial action that a growing portion of the audience knows may cause the players degenerative brain disease. Not even football fans, a tribe not known for savoring nuance, can forever block that fact from their excited brains.

Football can be dangerous. It has been described as participating in a series of weekly car crashes. Injury and pain are part of the game itself. However, football is not alone in its potential for peril. After all, we live in a country that has enjoyed boxing and MMA (sports Will basically puts in the realm of barbarians and those who would watch lions devour them) as well as NASCAR. Even baseball and soccer are not without casualties. America is the birthplace of extreme sports. Follow the linked text and you will see the darker side of sport and the lives they can cost. Examine the popularity of the franchises therein and you'll see that Americans are not afraid of danger in pursuit of entertainment.

After 18 people died playing football in 1905, even President Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and gore generally, flinched and forced some rules changes. Today, however, the problem is not the rules; it is the fiction that football can be fixed and still resemble the game fans relish.

Will concludes his article by saying that football cannot change because fans like it the way it is and therefore it will die because of the inherent dangers involved. But how does he come to this conclusion? What is the end game here?

Are we supposed to believe that people are going to stop watching football because of its inherent dangers? That seems unlikely. As the game has gotten more dangerous over the timeline used by Will, the sports has exploded in popularity. The sport now commands $9 billion in annual revenue. The cost of the rights to televise even a portions of these games could feed the population of entire countries. Most recently, owners and players simultaneously blinked when facing the potential of a strike costing games because there is too much of a market to ignore the money that can be made. People are not going to find something else to do with their Sundays because some of the players get "jacked up." In fact, the opposite is much more likely.

So what's the alternative? Are politicians going to ban the sport? In what election year might this happen? Teddy Roosevelt ain't walking through that door, Mr. Will. There is not one vote in Congress for outlawing the game of football and if there was the overwhelming opposition to that candidate, Republican or Democrat, would coalesce faster than you can say "SuperPAC." Say what you will about the dangers of the game but on Sunday afternoons that game unites us just as much as listening to baseball on the radio ever did. No, the end of football will be a political decision.

Finally, Mr. Will fails to understand how the advances of technology and natural ebb and flow of changes to the game can rectify this problem. After all, this is a game that survived Mr. Roosevelt's rules changes and has flourished under Mr. Goodell's. It is a game that has marshalled on through the invention of the forward pass. Football changes and those who watch it year in and year out can track its progress. For the good of the game and for the good the players, the game becomes what it needs to be. Thicker, lighter helmets, thinner, quicker linebackers and fewer repetitions of the weekly car crash are all being intergrated into the game as we speak. This is America. There are no problems too big for us to solve.

And football is America. The attitude that emanates from both is largely the same. Love it or leave it.

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