High School Tackle Football: Its Origins Foretell its Future

USA Football, the NFL funded national governing body for the sport recently held its annual meeting in Orlando. According to a January 30, 2018 account in the New York Times, they would have been better off holding it at a beach resort as it would have made it much easier for participants to dig holes to bury their heads in the sand.

According to Ken Belson, the conference amounted to a series of coaches, former players and various administrators coming to the lectern to deliver the same stern warning: “Football is under attack and your job is to change the narrative.” Apparently, many of the speakers insisted that the sport is “vital to the American experience, essential for its survival, and it doesn’t have a health and safety problem as much as it has a messaging problem.” David Baker, the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame said that if we lose football, “I don’t know if America can survive.”


I must have missed the American history lesson that explained how George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton felt a need to carve into the U.S. Constitution a clause specific to football being essential to the survival of our nation. Trust me, America will survive and thrive with or without football. Yes, it is extremely entertaining. Yes, we love being fans and being a part of a “tribe”. And granted, playing youth tackle football can have a positive impact on participants. But the fact is, so can involvement with any number of other sports. At the end of the day, it is simply game. To think it is essential for very survival of America is delusional. That said, the focus of this essay is not football in general, but rather youth tackle football specifically.

If Baker and his colleagues would lift their collective heads out of the sand and take an honest look at the current state of the game, they’d see that virtually all of the research emerging regarding football and brain trauma is making the connection between the two irrefutable. As a result, more parents, including many former NFL stars, are expressing concerns about letting their children play or prohibiting it outright. Meanwhile, for the second straight year, television ratings for the NFL fell both for the regular season and playoffs. And in the last two months, legislation to ban tackle football before the age of 14 was introduced in four states (Illinois, California, Maryland and New York).

Clearly, something is happening here. And it’s not simply a product of poor messaging.

If these developments on their own are not enough to paint a very cloudy picture of football’s future, something even more fundamental is at work, particularly as it applies to the future of tackle football sponsored by our junior high and high schools. Specifically, it relates to the fundamental justification for football being incorporated into our educational system in the first place.

Until the mid 1800s, America was primarily an agrarian economy and society. And, true to its purpose, our educational system reflected and served the needs of that society. Schools existed to provide the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. There wasn’t much time for anything else. Sports, games, music and the arts were considered frivolous and, for the most part, didn’t have much of a formal role in schools.

It was not until the Industrial Age that sports and football in particular, began to gain a foothold within our school curriculums. America’s emerging middle class began to experience a rising standard of living, with shorter workdays and more disposable income. As a result, it became more accepted to engage in a little “frivolity.”

But in the case of football, there was another influence at work. The primary reason football was incorporated into high schools had little to do with education in the traditional sense. The driving force behind the implementation of such programs were the great industrialists of the late 1800’s and early 1900s. Rather than having an interest in educating through sport, these business leaders looked upon organized athletics and in particular football, as a means to train, socialize and control a workforce. In short, Industrial America required workers to be dependable, in good physical shape, able to work as part of a team and, above all, obedient. It was widely believed that football instilled these characteristics. In the minds of factory owners, there was little room for lofty thinking on the assembly line. Industrialists of that time did not want their line workers to be great thinkers, preferring that they passively conform. “The leaders of American industry felt that their workers needed to be loyal and punctual, but not necessarily good academically.” (Miracle and Rees, Lessons of the Locker Room: The Myth of School Sports, 1994, p. 178.) 

At its origin, football was considered an extracurricular activity that was an entertaining addition to a school’s broad offerings, but certainly not central to the educational mission of the institution.  But as our society’s love affair with football, grew, so too did football’s place of importance in our schools. As a result, football has, if not structurally, then culturally and philosophically, moved closer to being considered a “basic”, or at least a more important part of the curriculum, than other extracurricular activities such as music, theatre or visual arts.
Because this notion has become so engrained in our public psyche over the past century, we continue to accept it without question. If this were not the case, why has it been far more likely that arts programs, rather than football programs, are reduced or eliminated in times of budget shortfalls?

It is precisely this long held belief of the educational utility of football as it applies to instilling in youth the necessary skills to successfully compete in the workforce and economy of the day that foretells its future in America’s educational system.

In short, the fundamental educational rationalization for incorporating football into the fabric of our educational system has gone the way of the leather football helmet. It simply does not apply in today’s world.

The fact is, our economy and our society have changed dramatically since these programs were initially incorporated into the educational system.  We no longer live in an industrial economy that requires workers to be physically fit, unquestionably obedient and able to methodically perform the manual tasks required for an assembly line. While football may have been a wise educational and economic investment in the early 1900s, continuing to invest in an activity best suited to prepare workers for a world and economy that no longer exists, is misguided. Music, for example, is a far better educational investment than football in providing the creative skills necessary to succeed in the interrelated, global, information-based, creative economy and world community of the future.

Change is difficult. It is often much easier to cling to the comfortable models from the past. But how silly would it be for a politician, school administrator or community leader to propose reforming our schools to place the primary emphasis on preparing students to become farmers and steel workers? That may have been quite reasonable in 1850 or 1900, but to propose that today would be considered crazy. While we still need a certain number of farmers and steel workers, to systematically structure our educational system to concentrate on preparing future generations for an agricultural or industrial economy is ludicrous.
This is why it is important to have a serious discussion about extracurricular activities in our educational system. This discussion must take place against a background that recognizes the fact that America’s economy has changed from one based on industrial might to one based on creativity and innovation.  Clearly, the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace of the future have far more to do with brains than brawn, requiring intellectual and creative skills nurtured in the classrooms and concert halls rather than muscles built in the weight room and on the playing field.
It comes down to whether we, as educational and community leaders, continue to fund an activity that scrambles brains and is better suited to prepare our children for an industrial economy that is long gone or invest in an activity that strengthens and builds brain capacity and brain function that is perfectly suited to prepare our children to more effectively meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. We should welcome this discussion and analysis, because if we approach it honestly, the end result will be better schools serving our children and communities more effectively.
In the end, isn’t that what we all want?

Music as the Glue of the Core Curriculum

An ongoing debate within the educational community relates to how to classify physical education classes, athletic programs (in particular, football) and music programs within the academic curriculum. Specifically, the question relates to whether these programs should be considered “extracurricular” or “core” activities. The purpose of this essay is not only to examine that question, but to make the case that music programs are not only “core” in nature, but actually have the potential, if utilized strategically, to be the “glue” that holds the entire core curriculum together.

Clearly, some form of physical activity should be a part of a well-rounded, core educational experience. Plato’s concept of “sound mind, sound body” is, in fact, sound. The question is what is the best way to effectively achieve this goal? Of the resources that a school devotes to physical activity and athletics, what percentage should be devoted to football, in which virtually no girls and a small percentage of male students participate, largely for entertainment purposes, versus a robust physical education program? A strong case can be made that a comprehensive physical fitness and wellness program should be considered and funded as a core activity because it can be accessible to all students and structured to offer activities that emphasize, teach and instill lifelong fitness habits.

Although football may have some positive academic impacts, it is extremely difficult to make the case that it is a core academic activity. This assertion is not widely disputed because football, as currently structured and conducted, is not about providing broad-based participation opportunities to benefit the general fitness of the entire student body. The reality is that Plato’s concept of a well-balanced and conditioned mind and body has been distorted in our current “football as entertainment” model.  A high school football program and a general physical fitness program have little in common. In a nutshell, while a case can be made for general physical fitness and wellness as a core activity, football is clearly extracurricular.

The case for music is different. A reasonable argument can be made that music, because of its’ direct impact on various core academic activities such as math, reading, language and even science, should not only be considered a core academic activity, but an activity that can serve as the “glue” of the core curriculum. In short, music is math. Music is reading. Music is language. And music is logic. As a result, music in some form can be incorporated into virtually any subject matter or academic curriculum to enhance learning and understanding.

While some schools consider and classify music as part of the general, core academic budget, the majority of junior and high schools consider music an extracurricular activity because, from a cultural and public perception standpoint, music is widely considered a “nice”, “add on” offering, but not absolutely necessary from an academic standpoint. If this were not the case, why is it that when budget crises hit, decisions regarding funding cuts usually do not center on core subjects and programs in science, math or English but, rather, on athletics, music and arts programs? The result is that sports and music programs are all too often pitted against each other in the funding debate.

But after a thorough review of the relative educational value and effectiveness of these activities, one has to question why they are both considered to be in the same category of noncore activities.  The difference is so stark that not only should music be considered a “core” subject, but has the potential to serve as the “glue” of the core curriculum.

Clearly, music has far more in common with core academic activities than with extracurricular ones. Music possesses several unique and extremely valuable educational characteristics that are particularly important in today’s schools, which face increasing pressure to provide students with an education equal to the challenges of the twenty-first century. Music positively impacts reading, language, math and logic skills and is universal in application, leading to excellent learning opportunities across disciplines. Football programs, on the other hand, possess very little in the way of these benefits, producing few discernible, direct academic benefits.

That said, music’s status as a core activity is a bit different from that of other core subjects such as math, reading and science. Specifically, music should not be considered a stand-alone core subject such as math or science. It is not another subject matter box to be checked. Music’s value as a fundamental, core educational activity rests in its’ universality–it’s potential and ability to link all of the other core educational activities into a comprehensive educational experience. Music, if utilized strategically, can offer a common thread throughout an entire academic curriculum.

In addition to its’ potential to amplify, crystallize and enhance learning in virtually all other subjects, there are other characteristics of music that lend credence to the claim that it is core in nature. Any core educational activity must be available to everyone. While football generally caters to a small slice of the student population, music programs are accessible to and can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone.

Additionally, we must instill in students the ability to navigate our increasingly multicultural, complex and integrated world. Music, as the universal language, clearly has the capacity to reach across cultural boundaries like no other activity. We have long considered core subject areas to be math, reading, language and science. However,  a case can be made that, moving forward in this wildly diverse world, “cultural understanding” should be added to that list of core subject areas.

Another subject that must be considered a core aspect of an education worthy to meet the demands of the twenty-first century is creativity. The ability to think outside the box to address increasingly complex issues and challenges and to make new and different connections that lead to exciting discoveries and knowledge will be one of, if not the most important characteristic that students must possess to be successful in a globalized world. Music is our most effective educational tool to encourage and develop creativity.

Further, a core educational principle that our teachers and schools should instill in all students is a love of lifelong learning. It is not enough to simply teach facts and figures, but rather teachers must spark in their students a fascination with the world in which they live and encourage an intellectual curiosity about their place in that world that will last a lifetime. An important component of such lifelong learning is to provide access and exposure to activities that can be engaged in, and thus learned from, for a lifetime. Music is such an activity while the ability and opportunity to continue to participate in football after high school is limited to a select few.  
Finally, music should be embraced as a core educational activity because it offers something different from math, science and reading in its approach, methodology and process. As Charles Fowler writes in Strong Arts, Strong Schools, the arts have a distinct advantage over other subjects in that the arts are “refreshingly different in the way that they are taught and learned.” (Fowler, 1996, p. 102.)

After fully assessing the impacts and benefits of these activities, it is clear that because of music’s broad based, universal educational impact and academic value, it should be considered not only a core educational activity, but an activity that can provide a broad framework to bring together all of the core subject matter elements in a cohesive, comprehensive way that reflects the realities of a global, creative, interdisciplinary 21st Century education. That being the case, decisions regarding how to allocate increasingly scarce “extracurricular” educational dollars and resources become quite clear. If music’s academic and educational benefits are significant enough for it to be considered not only core in nature, but the glue that can be applied to enhance the understanding of all core curricular elements, the choice is indisputable.

March Madness and the Couch Potato Athlete

When I feel athletic, I go to a sports bar.
— Paul Clisera

In the coming weeks, America will be overcome by “madness”. Throughout the country, sports fans, both casual and hard-core, will focus their attention on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In bars and bakeries, at the dinner table and over phone lines, people catch the madness. Office pools are organized and parties are thrown as television screens everywhere are tuned to "The Big Dance", as teams from Boise to Bloomington, Athens, Georgia to Athens, Ohio and New York to New Mexico compete for the national championship. Over three consecutive weekends, the original field of 68 teams is whittled down to one, crowned NCAA National Champion the Monday evening following Final Four Weekend.

Dubbed “March Madness” for the unpredictable nature of the contests as well as its’ catchy commercial ring, it is the perfect television event. Longer than the Super Bowl’s one day, one game extravaganza, shorter than the three month marathons that are the NBA and NHL playoffs, and more inclusive than the World Series, where only two cities are represented, it has captivated our nation’s televised sports consciousness as no other event. But rather than the unpredictable nature of the games or its’ commercial appeal, the term "March Madness" is appropriate for another reason; everyone is watching it. If everyone is watching, no one is participating. Instead, fans are sitting in front of the television set stuffing themselves with junk food and beer, watching what amounts to a contest between teenagers who are billed as students but are, in reality, paid mercenaries.

March Madness is also significant because it is the best example of the evolution in the way we "participate" in sports. This shift is problematic because our heavy cultural investment in sport is justified largely upon the belief that it promotes a healthy lifestyle. Those who regularly exercise and participate in sports are more likely to live a longer and healthier life. The Greek ideal of sound body, sound mind is, in fact, sound, as medical research on this claim is irrefutable. Unfortunately, March Madness has little to do with this Greek ideal. To the contrary, March Madness encourages behavior that has a negative impact on physical health.

Before televised sports, if a parent wanted to spend a "sporting moment" with their child, they likely would have gone to the backyard and played catch. Today, it is just as likely that such moments will be spent watching one of the hundreds of televised sporting events each week. Despite claims of the positive affect on the health of our populace, organized sport in America has become more about watching elite athletes perform rather than being active yourself; as likely to be associated with lying on the couch with a six-pack of beer than working up a sweat through vigorous exercise. As sport has grown in popularity, more people are sitting idly, watching the athleticism of the few. Television has lured us from the playing fields to the stands thus changing the idea of what it means to “participate” in sports. Rather than being in the middle of the action, we observe from afar. Meanwhile, our nation becomes more obese.

There is however, value in watching sports, the most obvious of which is that it is an escape from the ordinary. Watching sports can also be spiritually exhilarating, drawing us together and making us feel that we are a part of a larger force -- a team. Whether pulling for your city’s professional football team in the Super Bowl or your alma maters’ basketball team in the Final Four, such moments allow us to be a part of something much larger than ourselves and to connect with others.

But there are also significant disadvantages to spectatorship as articulated by James Michener in his 1976 book, Sports in America:

“The disadvantages of mere spectatorship are numerous and compelling. The health of the inactive watcher, whether in a stadium or before a television, suffers. He tends to accumulate tensions that are not discharged. While sitting and watching he contributes nothing to the common good and does not do those constructive things he might otherwise have done. Passiveness in sports encourages passiveness in social life and in politics. The mere spectator never shares in the positive rewards of performance and competition. Watching tennis at age fifty is infinitely less productive than playing it. The mere spectator fails to develop whatever innate talents he has and cheats himself of sport’s true joys.” (Michener, 1976, p. 86)

With the explosion of television coverage of sports, this question is even more relevant than when Michener commented on it in 1976. What price are we paying for our shift from active participation to passive consumption of sport?

The distortion of the value and purpose of sport in our culture has lead to the evolution of a sports system that is badly out of step with our nation’s health needs. Rather than maximizing opportunities to become involved in and reap the personal and health benefits of organized athletics, our current system weeds out, at an earlier and earlier age, everyone but those who display extraordinary potential.

In promoting this "elitist" structure, we have failed to advance the idea that sport for pure exercise is positive, fun, and healthy. Rather, athletics must be about winning and developing future all-stars and pros. If we believe sport to be a character building activity, an activity that prepares youth for adulthood and instills in them important values and discipline, why is our system of organized athletics not structured to encourage maximum participation?

Even the case for the positive health benefits of participation in competitive athletics may not be as clear-cut as it seems. While participation in elite, organized sport requires exercise, it is anything but moderate. In far too many cases, the physical demands and expectations required of competitive athletics borders on abuse. For example, incidences of “overuse” injuries in young athletes are increasing due to pressure to specialize in a particular sport and commit to year-round training at young ages. Because the rewards for winning -- wealth, notoriety, adulation, and fame -- have become so great, athletes and even their parents are more than willing to place the athlete’s lifelong physical health at risk for these immediate and fleeting rewards. Coaches, chasing the same rewards, do nothing to dissuade the athlete from doing so.

For sport to fully maximize its potential to positively affect the health and fitness of our populace, its focus should be upon involving the maximum number of participants. Unfortunately, in our current system an increasingly large commitment of money, time, effort, and emotion is heaped upon only those athletes who might have the potential to play major college or professional sports. From a public health standpoint, that is madness.

While we can certainly enjoy watching March Madness, to fully leverage sports’ potential health benefits, we must begin playing more and watching less.

Reflections on a Return to Vinyl (Side One)

My daughter handed me a large box.

“Dad, it’s time you returned to vinyl.”

I quickly agreed.

Then I heard the whisper from that dark spot deep in the back of my wounded psyche. I’d heard that whisper before. This wasn’t the first time I’d considered returning to vinyl.

She had been doing vinyl for a few years. My son soon followed suit. Being only 21 and 19 at the time, it was their first foray into the world of record collecting.

There have been unexpected benefits from them doing so. For example, selecting presents has become less stressful, more fun and infinitely more meaningful. When your children begin collecting albums, you want to be certain you help them get off to a good start. You provide the basics – the cornerstones – The Allman Brothers “Live at the Fillmore”, Hendrix “Are You Experienced?”, Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, along with some Stones, Dead, Doors, Carlos Santana and Rickie Lee Jones. Fatherhood is about providing your children with the basics to give them a firm foundation from which they can create their own path forward.

Vinyl records were projected to sell 40 million units in 2017. According to Deloitte, that represents a seventh consecutive year of double digit growth. Clearly my kids were not alone.
I had been lead to believe that the crisp, clarity of digital music reproduction and music streaming services had relegated the vinyl album to the dustbin of recorded music.  Apparently not.

Why the migration of music lovers to vinyl?

Some claim that the faint sizzling sound flowing from the speakers validates vinyl’s authenticity and back to the roots credentials.

Others love the album covers, which are pieces of art with or without the music contained inside: the Andy Warhol “Banana Art” that graces the cover of the Velvet Underground’s debut album, The Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” and then there is the iconic 1972 Carly Simon “No Secrets” cover, which made a lasting impression on teenagers too numerous to mention.

Others love the liner notes. Dissecting the lyrics can take on the feel of deciphering an ancient Buddhist Sanskrit tome in an attempt to discover the true meaning of Life. An age-old function of music and musicians has always been to tell stories about what’s going on around them in the culture of their time. The poetry of Dylan and Springsteen or the revolutionary calls of Bob Marley will be referenced and interpreted centuries from now by scholars intent on placing ancient events into historical context. And many simply reminisce regarding the practical utility of the two-panel album being the perfect tool to clean pot.

There are no simple answers to what’s driving an increasing number of music lovers, young and old, to discovering or returning to vinyl. Perhaps it’s a reaction to a world that seems less personal, more disconnected and increasingly artificial. Maybe it’s a quiet call for a return to more authentic, ritualistic experiences. Or, in an age of automation, Artificial Intelligence and technological advancement, it could be a siren call for a simpler time. When people feel disconnected, real, authentic experiences assume more meaning and can be nourishing for a shaken soul.

In such a world there is value in the act of holding an album and fully experiencing not only the sound but the texture, weight and feel of it. And there is a greater connection to the music in the physical act of having to change an album or to flip it over to experience Side Two. Or, in the case of Joe Jackson’s “Night and Day”, to flip  from the “Day” side to the “Night” side. This, as opposed to punching a button to listen to a play list determined by a Pandora algorithm.
Regardless, my daughter’s gift forced me to confront the musical demons residing in that dark spot in my psyche for what I did was shameful.

Fifteen years ago, I gave away my 600 plus record collection.

I have no excuses. I was told that in the digital age, the album had become obsolete. And I believed it. But I take full responsibility. Most disappointing was that I had been unfaithful. I didn’t trust the time tested beauty and authenticity of the vinyl album. With every new story of another music lover raving about their return to vinyl, I’d experience another moment of well-deserved depression.

As children often do, my daughter taught me a lesson and did me a favor. She recognized that it was time for me to embrace albums again and intervened accordingly. And as is often the case, out of the rubble of pain and shame, comes a chance at rebirth.

It’s often said that you have to hit rock bottom before taking your first step on the path to salvation. Fortunately, I had, without realizing it at the time, laid the groundwork for my personal musical redemption.

I didn’t give all of them away.

There were several that I simply couldn’t bear to part with, regardless of whether they would ever spin on a turntable again. Out of the ashes, there were remnants upon which to rebuild.
Among the handful of survivors was Tom Wait’s “Nighthawks at the Diner”, Woodstock, the collection of Robert Johnson’s original songs, recorded in hotel rooms in Dallas in 1936 and San Antonio in 1937, Steely Dan’s “The Royal Scam”, Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” and the Kansas City Blues Shouter, Big Joe Turner’s “Greatest Hits”, with a cover photo that perfectly depicts just how big Big Joe Turner was.

I’d also kept a personally inscribed copy of Koko Taylor’s “From the Heart of a Woman”. “To Gerd: With Love, Koko Taylor”. Give away a love note from the Queen of the Blues? I may have been foolish in giving away over 600 albums, but I wasn’t delusional.

Experiencing the depths of despair can also open your eyes to new opportunities. I began to look at my Father’s album collection in a new light. In cleaning out my parent’s home after their passing, we came across a couple of boxes of albums. I stored them in a back room and didn’t give them much thought. But when you are back in the record collecting business, boxes of 100 or so slices of vinyl suddenly become of great interest.  Regardless of how old or the fact that some were recorded in “mono” or “DynaGroove”, was an entertaining bonus. According to the liner notes, “DynaGroove is a product of research and development assuring that this record is as modern as the latest advances in engineering and science.” And I imagine that back in the day, it was very comforting for listeners of another disc to know that is was “Electrically Recorded.”

Talk about a gold mine!

Lot’s of Al Hurt to scratch my New Orleans jazz itch, a few choice slices of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass for a Latin fix and some Benny Goodman Big Band recordings. Throw in a few choice tidbits like Jimmy Smith and Count Basie and the result is the making of a small, but solid foundation upon which to rebuild. It made me realize that maybe the “Old Man” was a bit more hip than I had imagined.

The path from my daughter’s gift and instructions to the boxes of my Father’s old records made me appreciate something far more important than the warm sound of vinyl. While my Dad is long gone, he did what Fathers do. He provided me with some basic building blocks – a good foundation upon which I can recreate my own musical path forward.

Despite having to once again experience the pain of the loss of a lifetime album collection, I am thankful to have been provided a wonderful opportunity to do the same for my children. 

Nick Bouniconti’s Most Impactful Play

Nick Bouniconti’s Most Impactful Play

 Nick Bouniconti

Nick Bouniconti

Nick Bouniconti always had a big impact on the football field.

As middle linebacker, Bouniconti anchored the defense of the greatest football team in history, the undefeated 1972 Super Bowl Champion Miami Dolphins. Whether sacking a quarterback or tackling a running back short of a first down, Bouniconti always made his presence felt. And for so many fans in our football crazed society, what Bouniconti achieved is considered the highest of all sports pinnacles – Hall of Fame inductee and Super Bowl Champion on the only undefeated team in NFL history.  

But for a much of an impact he had on the field, that impact on the game pales in comparison to the impact and importance of his recent comment in an article, which appeared in a January 18 article in CNN.com, regarding youth tackle football.  The article quoted several former NFL players who are calling for an end to tackle football for kids ages 13 and under.

I beg of you, all parents to please don’t let your children play football until high school," said Bouniconti, 77, who has been diagnosed with dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease. “I made the mistake of starting tackle football at 9 years old. CTE has taken my life away. Youth tackle football is all risk with no reward.”

So while many of his plays on the field could bring a crowd to its feet, his comment is truly deserving of full-throated standing ovation.

Here are some links to the CNN article, as well as several essays I’ve written on the subject of youth tackle football.

"Former NFLers call for end to tackle football for kids" : Published on CNN.com | Jan. 18, 2018

"Why not flag football?" : Published in Philadelphia Inquirer | June 15, 2015

Published on JohnGerdy.com:

Why Not Flag Football?

Originally published in the June 15, 2015 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Why Not Flag Football?

It’s time for parents, school officials, the sports media, fans and anyone else who continues to resist the need to reconsider and re-imagine tackle football at the youth, junior high and high school levels to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask themselves a question:

Why not flag football?

Consider how we have long justified tackle football at these levels. That justification starts with the emphatic assertion that the game is “about the kids”.  The narrative continues. Tackle football teaches things that cannot be taught in the classroom. The field and weight room are classrooms where coaches teach valuable life lessons such as discipline, teamwork and personal responsibility.  Tackle football also increases student “engagement”, making kids more likely to stay in school while keeping them out of trouble by giving them something constructive to do. There’s the notion that participation in tackle football contributes to personal fitness. And in an increasingly competitive world economy and global community, the competitive aspect of tackle football can serve as a teaching tool. It’s also widely accepted that tackle football serves as a valuable community building function as few things can unite a community more than a successful tackle football team. And finally, tackle football is very entertaining.

But consider this.

It can be argued that football is so popular and entertaining because it satisfies a deep human attraction to, for lack of a better term, “bloodlust”. Like a moth to a flame or the rubbernecker to the auto accident, we are attracted to the crunches, crushes, mayhem and carnage. Let’s be honest. The violence and sheer brutality is a big part of tackle football’s entertainment appeal.

As evidence regarding the link between football, concussions and lasting brain damage mounts, there has been increasing attention to and dialogue surrounding how the game can be made “safer”. As if a game that, at its’ core, is predicated on inflicting bone crunching, brain rattling physical punishment on opponents can be made suitably safe. Let’s say that football’s damage quotient is at 9 on a scale of 10. Even with great effort, the most that could be expected would be to nudge that needle back from nine a bit.  Would that be safe enough? The fact is, the game is inherently, fundamentally violent. It is what it is, a brutal game. Instituting a few rules that will only marginally improve player safety and launching glitzy public relations efforts to sell those rule changes as having a meaningful impact won’t change that reality.

So, how about Flag Football?

Other than the bone crunching hits, blocks and tackles and the gladiatorial (and expensive) equipment required to “survive” those brain scrambling hits, blocks and tackles”, 95% of the two forms of the game yield essentially the same benefits for participants. But rather than having to literally sacrifice your body to tackle a ball carrier, in flag football, a defender must grab a ribbon from a belt attached to the ball carrier.  The essential elements of the game remain, including the grace, beauty and athleticism, albeit without the bone crunching, brain scrambling hits, blocks and tackles. And if you don’t believe it, go back to paragraph two and substitute “flag” for “tackle”.

You will find that all of the justifications that apply to tackle football can apply equally to flag football.

So why the resistance from the supposed “adults” in the room: parents, school officials, the sports media and fans?

We say that the game is “about the kids” and that it’s about teaching valuable life lessons, developing healthy bodies and competitive instincts, building community and providing entertainment. But if that were the case, rather refusing to consider a switch from tackle to flag football, we’d embrace the change. To do otherwise is to enable the continuation of an activity in which our children have a reasonable chance of sustaining life long brain damage. Why would we not embrace such an activity when a significantly safer and less expensive, alternative exists?

Some will cite a lost “benefit” of such a re-imagining of the game to be the loss of the extremely physical nature of it. Without that raw brutality, the lessons learned from getting up after being knocked down may be lost. This is nonsense. I played basketball professionally. I got knocked down hundreds of times and had to pick myself up and get back in the game. Basketball, and plenty of other sports, including flag football, can teach that lesson.  In short, tackle football does not have the market on teaching that life lesson.

The fact is, virtually every benefit that can be derived from tackle football can still be taught and absorbed through participation in flag football. Players will still be on teams to learn sacrifice, personal responsibility and teamwork. They’d still be actively engaged in a physical activity. They’d still compete for starting positions and against other teams. And the game would continue to be wonderfully entertaining, but in a different, less brutal (and expensive) way.

If all of the potential benefits for the participants remain, why not seriously consider it? If the game is truly about the kids as we claim, why not flag football? It offers the same benefits without the potential life long damage to the brain.

Are we so selfish as to refuse to reconsider and re-imagine football’s format to make it significantly safer for our children simply because it will be less entertaining for us?

It’s time to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask:

Why not flag football?