The Future of Tackle Football: Another Couple of Bricks in the Wall

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An old friend called recently. We were catching up on news of kids, recent travel and various body aches and pains when he announced he had something to tell to me. 

“I’m quitting football.”

I found this a bit confusing because at age 60, his playing days are long over. Besides, he played basketball in college and professionally overseas. 

We’d always bonded over sports, discussing and pontificating regarding matters both on the fields of play and off.  For a period of time, we both worked in college athletics. We consider ourselves pretty knowledgeable, having played at an elite level, studied sports as scholars and worked in the field. 

He also loves watching sports. In particular his, beloved Boston Celtics and New England Patriots. He hadn’t missed a televised Patriots game in years . 

“I’m quitting football,” he repeated. “I can no longer watch with a clear conscience.” 

He went on to cite several reasons, from the brutality of the game and the brain trauma it inflicts on players, to the NFL’s treatment of its cheerleaders, to the leagues handling of their players’ acts of “taking a knee” as a form of civil disobedience to highlight their concerns about police brutality.  

“I can’t justify it anymore.”

I’ve long been where he is now arriving. I do, however, periodically check in to watch a few plays to gauge whether the game is changing as it relates to player safety. As has been well-documented, the “football industrial complex”, lead by the NFL and its “Heads Up Football” campaign, has engaged in a widespread public relations campaign aimed to convince the public, and in particular, mothers, that the various changes in rules and teaching techniques have made the game suitably safe for children. It is important to note, however, that they have waged this campaign with little empirical data to back their claims. Yes, there are many well-meaning people who are attempting to make the game safer.  But I am sorry. From what I see, the game is not being played in a significantly different manner. It simply doesn’t pass the eye test. It remains a gladiatorial sport – brutal and barbaric. Players continue to lead with their heads, using their helmets as spears. Meanwhile, research regarding tackle football’s devastating impact on brain health and function continues to mount. 

The following day, I read an article about the growing movement to bring 'esports' into the high school sports arena to meet what is a significant and growing demand. Esport leagues are being created to meet that demand. One league, the High School esports League (HSEL) has partnered with 850 schools and has more than 16,000 users. Another company (Play VS) has partnered with the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) to begin varsity level esports leagues in at least 18 states. And this year, Indiana’s Munster High became the country’s first high school to allow students to letter in varsity eSports.

And there’s money in it.

Colleges are beginning to offer esports scholarships. Once substantive scholarship money is dangled in front of participants, high school eSports are going to explode. While the demographics of those attracted to esports versus football may not overlap completely, it will have an impact around the fringes.  Kids who may not be the best athletes but who participated in football to feel a part of a team or to participate in an activity with their friends or simply to please a parent, will have another, far less violent alternative. 

Esports, offers many of the same benefits and attractions as football. It is a team sport and in many schools will soon be a varsity sport. It is a fun activity that can be played with friends as teammates and even provides the possibility of earning a scholarship. That will be an attractive package for a growing number of kids. 

Further, an increasing number of parents will likely ask, “Why sacrifice my child’s brain and body on the football field for the non-existent chance at a college scholarship?” Inasmuch as football is a game of numbers, losing a handful of players here and there, will make a difference.

And for colleges, recruiting kids who are strengthening their minds through eSports as opposed to scrambling them with football will be increasingly attractive.

And if you think esports is simply a passing phase for geeks and freaks, live eSports events are beginning to sell out professional arenas. 

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The most striking story told in a June 14, 2018 article in Bleacherreport titled “Forget Friday Night Lights, Esports is Becoming the Next Varsity Obsession”, was about Chris Chapman and his two sons. Chris grew up attending football games with his father. Apparently when Chris offered to take his two sons to a New York Jets game, they asked whether they could go to the CS:GO tournament instead. GS:CO stands for Counter-Strike:Global Offensive, which is the esport world championship that was held in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.  

Clearly, the loss of my friend as a devoted television viewer or the fact that a father who offered to take his kids to an NFL game wanted to be taken to an esport event instead will not bring the NFL to its knees. Football remains a powerful cultural force. But small stories and actions such as these, coupled with the larger trends of declining television viewership, declining numbers of participants at the youth league level, increased public and media scrutiny, begin to add up. 

Make no mistake, slowly but surely, drip-by-drip and brick-by-brick, our society’s relationship with the sport of tackle football is changing. Football is a numbers game. And the fact is, those numbers are steadily decreasing. 

'Strange Fruit' to 'Hey Jude': Music Protests Large and Small

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For my money, WBGO, which airs out of Newark, NJ, is the world’s finest jazz station. Founded in 1979, WBGO is “a publicly supported cultural institution that preserves and elevates America’s music: jazz and blues.”

Due to the wonders of the internet, you can livestream WBGO anywhere in the world. In this case, I was at the Sun Gate at end of the Inca Trail in Peru. Looking down upon Machu Picchu, at an elevation of over 9,000 feet, a wild thought jumped into my high altitude addled brain. “WBGO? Up here?” So I dialed it up on my iPhone and was soon listening to WBGO deep in the heart of the Andes Mountains. What an amazing world we live in!

As our tour group was getting ready to move on, I heard only a snippet of an in-studio interview with a young jazz musician. I didn’t catch his name, but heard loud and clear him explaining the responsibility of artists to tell the stories of what goes on in society or culture. “As an artist”, he explained, “it’s part of the deal. You have a powerful platform. But you must wield that power thoughtfully and responsibly.”

There has been a lot in the news recently about athletes using their platform to advocate for civil rights and social justice. Similarly, artists and musicians have a rich history of doing the same. Their music or art provides them a platform to shed light on social norms, beliefs and attitudes.

Nina Simone articulated it well, “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

John Lennon also referenced this responsibility. “My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try to express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher. Not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.”

Or, in the words of Trent Reznor, founding member of Nine Inch Nails, “I have influence, and it’s my job to call out whatever needs to be called out, because there are people who feel the same way but need someone to articulate it.”

It reminded me of the time, long ago, when I participated in a musical act to protest and to comment on the times and express what we, as peers, felt.

The year was 1971.

Granted, our little act of activism wasn’t something that led to the kind of cultural change spurred by the arrival of Elvis, the Beatles or Chuck Berry, but within the halls of Little Falls School #1 it reverberated.  It’s been argued that it drove Ms. Haynes, the school’s music teacher, to an early grave.

Rather than music class being a joyous and creative experience, Ms. Haynes wielded music like a club, virtually bludgeoning us into submission, all while primly perched behind her piano. She taught the school chorus “her” way, made us sing “her” songs that “her” chorus had sung forever.  Songs like “It’s a Grand Old Flag” and “The Wells Fargo Wagon.” Nothing against either of those songs, but did they have to be on the song list every show, every year?

It all came to a head during rehearsal for the spring concert. After the third run-through of “Waltzing Matilda,” we were restless. The times they were a changin’ and we wanted in on it. We wanted to sing at least one song that was timely and relevant. And to us, that meant The Beatles. And Ms. Haynes represented what needed to change.

I raised my hand. “Do you know Hey Jude by the Beatles?"

“Of course, I know the Beatles,” she snapped, eyes piercing over wire spectacles. No matter how hard she may have tried to deny them, those long-haired lads from Liverpool managed to slip through the side door of Ms. Haynes’s musical domain. “I am, however, unfamiliar with the song.”

“It’s a great vocal song with a cool ending. We’d like to sing it” I replied.

“I don’t think the Beatles would be appropriate for the spring concert,” she responded.

But we were dead set on singing it.  At the next practice, we asked again. Again, she refused.
So we walked. Five of us, including Skippy Brask, her prize student. We quit the chorus. Our demonstration caused quite a stir in our small suburban elementary school. A group of eighth graders walking out on Ms. Haynes? Quitting over the Beatles?  Maybe it wasn’t Woodstock , punk rock or Chuck Berry, but it was our own little rock ‘n’ roll revolution. We drew a line in the sand at “Hey Jude.” We had no clue at the time, but we were using music’s transformational powers to make a statement to spur change.

Yes, I know. It wasn’t Billie Holiday performing “Strange Fruit”. But it did shake up our little grade school in our little corner of our world for a couple of days.

This comparison is by no means meant to trivialize the power of an artist or a song to shake up the world. To the contrary, it is to illustrate the broad, far reaching power to do so.

 Abel Meeropol watches as his sons, Robert and Michael, play with a train set.  Courtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol

Abel Meeropol watches as his sons, Robert and Michael, play with a train set.
Courtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol

There is no better song to sharpen that point than “Strange Fruit”. Written as a protest to the inhumanity of racism, it was penned and arranged by Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish man from the Bronx after seeing a picture of a lynching.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

This is one of the most powerful and haunting songs ever written. In 1999, Time magazine named it the “Song of the Century”. Clearly, it made an enormous difference in raising awareness and shaping the dialogue around the issue of racism in America.

Sadly, athletes and artists continue to face blowback and criticism for using their platforms to raise the collective consciousness of our populace regarding timely and relevant issues of the day. Far too many continue to believe and say that athletes, artists, entertainers and musicians should, “Shut up and play, paint, or sing”, and not comment on the important social, cultural or political issues that impact their lives in profound ways.

But the fact is, perhaps now, more than ever, we need artists, athletes, entertainers and musicians to continue to “reflect the times.” It’s “part of the deal”. And we will all be better off if they continue to meet one of their most fundamental responsibilities to wield that power thoughtfully and responsibly.


Billie Holiday Performs the Song

Envisioning a Better Model for Interscholastic Sports

Athletes often use a technique called “visualization” to improve their chances of success. For example, the athlete imagines an act such as hitting a baseball or envisions reacting during a competitive situation. It is believed that if the athlete sees herself performing a particular skill, it will improve her chances of actually performing that skill successfully. In other words, to achieve success, one must be able to visualize what success will look like.

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The purpose of this essay is to encourage the reader to envision success of another sort: the successful transformation of the role that athletics plays in our high schools, and as a result, in our society.  I am not talking about change around the fringes, but a progressive vision of systemic change. A vision of change from the current “elite” model of sports in America, where the vast majority of resources are heaped upon the few who show extraordinary potential, to one that would have as its fundamental purposes, to use athletics as a tool to supplement the educational development of participants, to support the missions of our educational institutions, and to promote broad based participation in activities that can be practiced for a lifetime for purposes of public health.

This is not about the intrinsic value of athletics, but whether the current system is best suited for making the most of athletics’ potential to meet our nation’s education and public health needs. There is a place for elite athletics in our culture. The question is simply whether that place should be in our schools.

Elite sport is an important American cultural institution. As such, we as individuals and, collectively, as a society, must critically assess its impact on our schools, communities and culture. This is no different than other American institutions. From our health care system to our welfare system, old ideas, programs, institutions, and philosophies must continually be examined, refined and, if appropriate, restructured. And the fundamental standard of evaluation is utility. Do these institutions continue to serve the public in relevant and timely ways? If it is determined, through honest debate and data based research, that elite athletics have a positive impact on educational institutions and public health, we should invest more heavily in them. But if elite athletics’ supposed positive benefits are disproved, we have an obligation to reconsider that investment. To do anything else would be irresponsible.

One only needs to look in any newspaper’s sports pages, watch the local television newscast or tune into ESPN’s 24-hour a day sports coverage to appreciate sports’ popularity and the breadth of its influence in America. There is also no denying that virtually every aspect of the sports enterprise has changed over the past two decades. There is more money, more media exposure, more pressure to win, and that pressure is creeping further and further down sport’s food chain. Regardless of how popular sports are, there are serious questions about the ways they have come to influence our schools, communities, and culture. The question is whether our nation’s system of organized athletics, as currently constructed, is meeting its educational, civic, and public health purposes.

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Sadly, the answer is that it is not. It is within our educational system that this shortfall has had the most impact and greatest consequences. Despite how much we love sports, we must be honest about their impact on our culture.

Before continuing, I would like to be clear on two points. First, I love sports. I love playing them. I love watching them. I believe they play an important role in our lives. I do not advocate the elimination of organized sports in America. This is neither wise nor realistic. It is critical however, that we honestly evaluate its impact on our schools and society, and if appropriate, restructure our educational investment in athletics accordingly. 

The issue is balance and perspective, not elimination.  Sport’s potential to positively contribute to our society is enormous. If kept in the proper perspective, sport provides compelling entertainment, contributes to a healthy lifestyle, and builds character in participants. The problem however, is that we have lost perspective regarding the role that organized athletics should play in our culture. And our educational institutions have played a significant role in that development.

Second, the type of athletics to which I refer are elite, interscholastic sports. There is absolutely no doubt that athletics have a place within our educational institutions. Athletic activities can and should be utilized to supplement the educational experience of participants as well as the academic mission of the institution. And there is a place for elite athletics within American culture. The question is whether that place should be in our educational system. In short, should our educational institutions be saddled with the responsibility of developing elite athletes and teams? And is our current system of athletics the best model for meeting our nation’s educational and public health needs?

It is notable that the United States is the only country in the world in which elite athletics programs are sponsored by high schools and universities. In Europe, the responsibility for the development of elite athletes and teams is borne by private sports clubs or professional teams. Could it be that in the case of the development and promotion of highly competitive, elite athletics, the Europeans have it right?

In Europe, when a youngster is identified as having superior talent and potential for a particular sport, he or she pursues that sport through a local club program.  The responsibility of the educational system regarding athletics is to promote and encourage broad based participation in activities that can be enjoyed for a lifetime for purposes of improving public health. This, as opposed to the American system which devours increasingly large amounts of resources for an activity that has as its primary purpose to provide public entertainment and to serve the athletic needs of a select group of athletes.

While the move to the European club sport system may sound radical, it is not. Our school systems and universities would survive without highly competitive sports as would our elite athletes and coaches. Local organizations and youth groups would develop and sponsor more comprehensive athletic programs. And, as in Europe, existing professional teams would begin to sponsor their own feeder systems and programs. Each professional league would be forced to develop a minor league system, similar to the one that currently exists in baseball. In short, the responsibility for developing future professional athletes would shift from our high schools to private sports clubs and pro teams.

In some sports, such a shift is well on its way. Many elite athletes in the sports of soccer, basketball and swimming have come to consider their participation on elite local clubs or traveling AAU or all-star teams more important than participation on their high school teams. To these athletes, this is a logical progression of their involvement in youth sports clubs and elite travel teams. Further, the direct link between high school athletics and the educational institution has become increasingly tenuous as a growing number of high school coaches are not professional teachers. These trends are simply the first signs that the de-coupling of elite athletics and high schools is under way.

Shifting the responsibility for conducting elite sports programs to outside sports clubs is clearly in the best interests of our schools, athletes and coaches. Our educational system would be rid of a highly visible source of hypocrisy and scandal.  Intramural, physical education, and wellness programs could be expanded, resulting in more students being able to avail themselves of health and exercise related resources. The credibility of our educational system would grow because such a change would signify that our schools and communities have strong educational values and public health priorities. With such a change, our educational system would be better positioned to serve the broad, long-term, health and exercise needs of America.

It is interesting to note that when compared to other countries, American students fair poorly academically when compared to students in counties such as Japan, Germany, France and South Korea to name only a few. Students from these and most other industrialized nations consistently perform better than American students in science and math. American students also consistently rate last in the area of physical fitness. Although there is no data demonstrating a direct link between these two dubious distinctions, the fact that America is the only country where schools are responsible for the development of elite athletes and teams, leads one the think that there has to be a correlation.

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In such a system, athletes and coaches would continue to have the opportunity to hone their skills as elite sports activities and training would simply shift to other local sponsoring agencies. As in Europe, local sports organizations would develop and sponsor more comprehensive athletic programs and professional teams would sponsor feeder systems and programs.

Contrary to what avid sports fans might believe, our nation’s educational system would not collapse if the responsibility for developing elite athletes and teams were “privatized”. While our school systems might be less dynamic, and in some ways, less fun without elite athletics, they will continue to go about the business of educating. In fact, the education of students would likely improve with the elimination of such programs as the focus on academics would intensify.

Guns for Teachers? How About More Violins for Students?

Originally published in Lancaster Online on May 25th, 2018


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As I walked home from the March for our Lives rally for gun control and school safety in Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Binns Park, being one of millions of participants in the estimated 800 events worldwide, I couldn’t help but think, “Maybe…possibly…this time will be different.”
The typical reaction to school shootings has been a burst of public outrage, prayers for the victims and their families, calls for change, pushback from the NRA and then soon forgotten as the next big news story emerges.

But this feels different.

It is being lead by young people with their boundless energy, pure ideals and the fact that they know how to effectively leverage social media. And not only have they not been bought off by the NRA, many of the young leaders of the March for Our Lives movement have stared the realities of school gun violence right in the face as they have witnessed first hand, their classmates being gunned down in cold blood by weapons of war. Theirs is a generation where, since the Columbine massacre in 1999, 187,000 students have experienced a shooting on their campus (Timothy Egan, New York Times, March 31, 2018).

That’s a very powerful combination.

If this time is truly different, it’s about time. Kids don’t feel safe in their schools and the rest of us don’t feel safe in our communities.

And if this time is truly different, lawmakers and community leaders will begin to allocate resources to address not only gun control generally, but also school safety, which is the focus of this essay.

If this time is truly different, school boards and community leaders will face some very important decisions regarding how to efficiently and effectively allocate those resources to make our schools safer. And the fundamental challenge is how to strategically “harden” the outside perimeter of our schools?

To date, the dialogue surrounding this challenge has fallen into three categories.
First, arm teachers. This however, is not a credible solution as the vast majority of teachers oppose it. My sister has been a second grade teacher for 35 years. While I love her dearly, if I was the parent of one of her students’, I’d be terrified of arming her. The fact is, more guns in the classroom will result in more accidental firings and deaths.

Second, hiring, arming and training additional security guards. And, finally, “hardening” the school perimeter with more checkpoints, barriers, metal detectors, video cameras and additional safety features.

While it can be argued that the second and third measures can make schools “safer”, the larger question is whether they will make them “better”. There is no denying that a consequential byproduct of hardening school perimeters will be that their look, feel and operations will become significantly more “militarized”.

While the point is not to downplay the need to harden school perimeters, there is another part of an intelligent, strategic and sensible approach to this problem that should also be considered. What will be the impact of children being forced to learn in a more militarized environment? And what can be done to mitigate those impacts?

Effective learning is greatly impacted by the environment and school atmosphere within which teaching and learning take place. That environment must be welcoming, nurturing and joyous. Those are not terms typically associated with armed guards, checkpoints, barriers and video cameras. If we are going to “harden” our school perimeters, we have a responsibility to our children to make sure we correspondingly invest in things that will “soften” the inside of schools. We must strategically consider appropriate measures to counterbalance that increased militarization by making the learning environment within schools more nurturing and joyous.
Fortunately, we know the types of educational activities and programs that make school learning environments more welcoming, nurturing, joyous and therapeutic: music and the arts. Not only do children learn better, but teachers enjoy teaching more when surrounded by beauty, creativity and joy. Research tells us that music and the arts create a more nurturing, joyous and therapeutic learning environment.

Stated more directly, rather than placing a gun in the hands of my sister, why not place more instruments in the hands of her students?

If our schools are going to become increasingly “hardened” and “militarized” on the outside, it is important that once within that militarized perimeter, the halls and classrooms within the school are joyous places where the thoughts of fear of violence or school shootings are relegated to the back of students’ minds. In such a “locked down” environment, the arts, more than any other educational tool at our disposal, can do that.

A result of these marches will likely be that lawmakers and school leaders will find money to add security personnel and safety measures that will result in a more “militaristic, locked down” school environment. At the same time, history tells us that they won’t hesitate, if money needs to be found in existing budgets to fund new programs or when programs need to be reduced or cut in a budget crunch, funding for activities such as music, theater and the arts often suffer.

Even without taking into account the need for additional security, it is educationally sound to invest in the arts as they are essential to providing an education worthy of the 21st Century.
Due to their universal nature and clear educational benefits, music and the arts are not simply an extra-curricular or co-curricular activity but can, if used strategically and effectively serve as the “glue” that holds together the entire core curriculum. For example, 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 thus leading to powerful learning opportunities across disciplines.

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. Another subject that must be considered a core aspect of a 21st century education 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. Music and the arts are also therapeutic, providing young people who feel alienated, isolated and confused within the traditional educational setting opportunities to “find themselves”. The arts offer activities and a community that makes them feel they belong as opposed to feeling like an outcast. One of the most valuable characteristics of the arts is that they are inclusive, forgiving and nurturing. It’s a place of belonging. There is tremendous value in that. I‘m no social scientist, but my guess is that many of the school shooters feel they are ostracized and outcasts.

Enhancing school safety in an age of easy access to deadly firearms in a pervasive gun culture is a complicated issue. Simply increasing investment in music and the arts in our schools will certainly not solve the problem. That said, neither will a collective knee-jerk reaction to simply further militarize schools.

If this time is truly different, significant resources to enhance school safety will very likely be coming down the pike. That being the case, it is critical that school and community leaders allocate those resources wisely. Rather than simply adding more armed guards, check points and metal detectors and then wiping our hands clean and stating our mission of making our schools “safer” accomplished, we must think outside the box to make our schools not simply safer, but better.

America’s Game Slipping Out of Touch with American Values?

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America’s Game Slipping Out of Touch with American Values?
 
One of the most defining influences on my athletic career was when the New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. The Jets, from the upstart American Football League, were lead by the brash, shaggy-haired, nightlife-loving Broadway Joe Namath. The Colts represented the “old line” National Football League and were lead by the crew cut straight-laced quarterbacks Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrill. I was a Jets fan and loved Namath. What he represented to me was that you could still be a great athlete without having to force yourself to fit the conservative mold of the old-line sports establishment. Namath taught me that you can be an athlete and still be yourself and do it your way.

 
 

Like me, many people, young and old, take their cues and mirror behaviors from what athletes or team owners say or do. For well over 60 years, the National Football League’s impact on American society and cultural norms has been significant. The NFL has aligned its’ brand with American institutions such as the military, law enforcement with a full embrace of the flag and patriotism. At the core of the league’s narrative and brand is positioning football as uniquely “American”. As a result, the NFL has served as a leading indicator and shaper of American cultural norms. But a closer look reveals a league that is handling a wide array of issues in a way that suggests that it is falling out of line with various, rapidly changing American values.

To date, linking its’ brand to all things American has served the NFL well. The problem, however, is that the cultural values and norms the NFL continues to embrace, remain locked in an American society of the 1950’s or 1960’s rather than American society and culture of today.  While our society has been changing dramatically over the past several decades, largely for the good, the NFL has been mired in the quicksand of the past.

It is not surprising that the NFL has become breathtakingly out of line with several fundamental societal changes in norms and beliefs. The league is run by old, white, billionaire men who seem to be out of touch with today’s shifting cultural trends. Clearly, more than a handful of them think that America remains as it was is in the days of Henry Winkler’s Fonzie character in the TV sitcom “Happy Days”.

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Clearly, there is something going on as it relates to football’s place in our culture. Television ratings are dropping. Participation numbers at the youth level for tackle football are declining. And media coverage, once unfailingly fawning, has become more critical and introspective. How much of these trends are a result of the NFL being behind the cultural times is hard to determine, but make no mistake, our society is changing rapidly and if the NFL does not acknowledge and address those changes accordingly, its’ cultural sway will likely diminish significantly.

In short, the world is passing the NFL “old boy’s club” by. Without significant change, the league and its values will become cultural dinosaurs. This is not to say that the league won’t remain popular and won’t attract a significant number of fans who will continue to watch football. Rather, it is to suggest that the values and policies it represents and embraces are becoming out of line with the beliefs of an increasing number of Americans. A case can be made that in the age of rapidly changing America values and demographics, as evidenced in the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, the corresponding evolution of cultural norms and beliefs no longer line up with those of the league.

Gladiator Games: A Healthy American Value?

The ongoing revelations regarding the violent nature of the game and its impact on the players, particularly as it relates to brain trauma, is a good place to start. These revelations have resulted in increased scrutiny and skepticism regarding the gladiatorial nature of the game.  While this might sound hyperbolic, but short of feeding the participants to lions, at a core level, there’s not much difference between Roman gladiator games and the modern day NFL. Both sacrifice the bodies and brains of participants in violent “combat” for the entertainment of the masses. And the league has only exacerbated that skepticism in its’ long-standing efforts to hide or downplay research on head trauma and it’s continued practice of stonewalling attempts of former players who are suffering from the effects of brain trauma from receiving compensation and health benefits. It all makes you wonder whether our obsession with brutal “Gladiator Games” is a healthy American value.

A Culture of Misogyny?

Another example is the way the league has handled the issue of domestic violence by its players. Typically, the NFL’s stance has been to brush over such incidents or to bend over backward to make excuses for them and by imposing a suspension of a few games on a player without really addressing the issue in a meaningful way.

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Further evidence of the NFL’s misogynistic culture relates to how the teams treat their cheerleaders. The New York Times recently reported on a Washington Redskins 2013 cheerleader calendar photo shoot in Costa Rica.  The women were required to pose topless or in body paint for the shoot, all while team sponsors and luxury suite holders were allowed to observe. And after the photo shoot, several of the cheerleaders were expected to accompany sponsors as escorts. But that is simply one example from one team. Throughout the league, cheerleaders are required to adhere to standards of behavior more suited to the stern morality of the Victorian Age than the 21st century, with restrictive rules on dating or even being seen in public with players, strict dress codes and excessively restrictive codes of conduct.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not only the NBA’s all-time leading scorer but is also one of the most knowledgeable and thoughtful observers of the intersection of sport, race, civil rights and American culture.  In an April 6, 2018 column in The Guardian titled, “The NFL’s plan to protect America from witches”, he writes, “a cheerleader in modest lingerie is fired; a player knocks out his wife on video and is suspended for two games. Boys will be boys, but girls must be what the NFL tells them to be.”  

Talk about a slam dunk in summing up a troubling culture!

Remnants of a Plantation Culture?

And then there is the way in which the league has handled player protests relating to police brutality against black Americans lead by Colin Kaepernick. As a way to draw attention to the issue, players “took a knee” during the playing of the National Anthem.  These actions have generated attention in a way that suggests that there may be a shift or an awakening taking place among athletes relating to how to leverage their visibility and standing in our society. There have been a sizable number of athletes throughout the country from the NFL, NBA and WNBA to colleges, high schools and even youth leagues who have knelt, sat, raised a fist or locked arms as a sign of unity with Kaepernick. That’s noteworthy.

What’s also noteworthy is that while several owners supported the players at first, their stance quickly changed when they began to get negative feedback from fans and television executives. Since then, the NFL has clearly blackballed Kaepernick and, as of this writing, they are apparently doing the same to his former teammate Eric Reid, who has been vocal in his support of this activist action.

Another example is the case of Chad Thomas, a recent third round pick of the Cleveland Browns who played college ball at the University of Miami. Thomas has already made a name for himself in the music business as a talented producer who has produced tracks for artists like Rick Ross, Kodak Black and City Girls and has been sampled by DJ Khaled and Drake. He can read and write music and plays nine different instruments. It’s an interesting reflection of the values of the NFL and football culture that he was repeatedly asked by teams during the draft evaluation process about his music career. As Master Tesfatsion wrote in BleacherReport.com  (April 23, 2018), “NFL teams are uncomfortable when a football player pursues off-the-field interests, none more so than rap…It causes decision makers to question whether a player wants to be a rapper or a football player.”

As if you can’t do both?

The NFL seems to be saying that athletes are not worthy, smart, educated or well informed enough to speak out on societal matters that deeply impact them and their families or to have interests outside of football. It is ironic that often the same people who hold up those very same athletes as  “role models” when they are scoring touchdowns and selling tickets, are the first to attempt to silence them for speaking out. Apparently, when athletes use their brains and intelligence to make a public stand or pursue other interests, they suddenly become radicals and ungrateful for the “privilege” of playing football.

Anti-Intellectualism in the Global, Creative Economy of the 21st Century?

There is another angle to the Chad Thomas example that is worth mentioning. While this applies to many sport cultures, it seems particularly prevalent in the football culture. Specifically, it is the thread of anti-intellectualism and the “dumb jock” stereotype that permeates the football culture. This attitude flows from the absolute obedience, discipline, and conformity that is demanded by coaches. In other words, as was made clear to Thomas, all that matters is football.

Without question, over the past century, football has played an important role in the development of our country. Football helped to strengthen our bodies and mold our character in a way that met the needs of a country emerging into a world military and industrial power. But we are now in a new age, an age where intellect, education and the ability to creatively manage and communicate large amounts of highly technical information will power our growth and continued development as a nation. Intellectual creativity, not single-minded conformity and gladiatorial feats, will be the currency of the future. Against this backdrop, we must consider whether the values and attitudes that permeate throughout not only the NFL but the entire football community, remain in line with the educational values and personal skills and characteristics that are necessary to succeed in the global, creative economy and the world community of the future.

NFL Profits vs Public Health?

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In a March 28, 2018 piece that appeared in Vox, Julia Belluz writes about how major advertising sponsors of sports leagues and in particular, the NFL, are often food and beverage companies that peddle junk food to children. The association of these unhealthy foods (sodas, snack foods, etc) with sports, she writes, is “especially problematic – it fuses this healthy activity with this really unhealthy message.” Clearly, the NFL has a tremendous influence over and impact upon children. Given the childhood obesity problem in our country, could it be that, in its’ quest for profits in partnering with these industries, the NFL is actually having a negative impact on public health and the childhood obesity epidemic? While the league has made an attempt to promote physical activity in youth through its Play 60 campaign, the question is whether that is enough.  

Granted, a few articles and some increased attention and critical analysis of its’ handling of these issues will not bring the NFL to its knees.  But make no mistake, slowly and surely, things are changing as it relates to the role, influence and impact of football in our society. Football is facing growing public scrutiny that will continue to increase. And it should as a case can be made that certain values and societal norms, long promoted by the NFL, are not necessarily a reflection of today’s culture.

In short, American culture has changed significantly from when I watched Joe Namath and the Jets defeat the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. While the NFL’s cultural influence remains powerful, the fact is, if those old, white, male, billionaire owners don’t get their heads out of the sand and recognize that we are long past the “Happy Days” of Fonzie, Ritchie, Joanie, and Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham, the NFL’s cultural relevance and influence will, like the skills of an aging superstar quarterback, slowly but surely wither away. 

Life Lessons From the Blues: CeDell Davis

It’s not often that an obituary sticks in your head for more than a week, let alone six months.

I can’t get the life story of CeDell Davis out of my head. Davis was a Delta bluesman from Arkansas who used a knife for a guitar slide to create a sound, described by New York Times  music critic Robert Palmer, as “a guitar style that is utterly unique, in or out of the blues.”

He passed away on September 27, 2017 at age 91. It always saddens me to hear of the passing of a Delta blues musician as it represents another lost link to the soul of America. Not only does it represent a lost link to an original American art form, but in the case of CeDell Davis, a loss of a living example of the fundamental American ideal that if you work hard and persevere, despite facing many obstacles, you can make a life for yourself and add to the wonderful cultural mosaic of our society. 

Davis was one of those many blues musicians who, for many years, toiled in relative obscurity. According to Jon Pareles’ obituary in the NY Times (Oct. 12, 2017), Davis performed around the South in juke joints and house parties before a broader audience got a chance to hear his electrified rural blues in the 1980’s.

That sounds like a fairly standard story for Delta bluesmen of that era. But as I read about the life he lead, my jaw dropped. While there are all types of colorful stories recalled when remembering blues musicians, never had I read a more inspiring story about the human will to persevere in the face of one daunting challenge after another. He was a model in sheer determination in pursuing his passion for music.

If curious, YouTube him. I’d suggest “CeDell Explains Boogie Woogie”. There’s no word to accurately describe how this cat approached, created and performed music. In fact, I went to the dictionary and a book of synonyms to find one. There is no word. You’ve simply got to see and hear him.  
 
Born in Helena Arkansas on June 9, 1926, he learned to play guitar and harmonica at an early age. But at age 10, he contracted polio leaving him with partly paralyzed arms and legs, requiring crutches to walk.  The polio crippled his right (natural) playing hand to the point where he had to turn his guitar around and play left handed. As if that wasn’t hard enough, his left hand, while less crippled, would still not allow him to play chords with his fingers in the traditional way. He improvised and began playing with a knife, sliding it along the strings.

As a teenager, he played street corners and juke joints in and around Helena and began appearing on live blues radio shows on KFFA such as ”King Biscuit Time” with Sonny Boy Williamson and “Bright Star Flour” with Robert Nighthawk.

So there here we was, challenged with the affects of polio, but making the best of it by adjusting his playing technique to where he was making a living as a musician. If the story ended there, it would be a great one.

But the story doesn’t end there. And in a nod to the time-honored lore of Blues history, the next chapter began with a gun being drawn in a nightclub.

(A side note: My personal favorite Blues story of a gun in a nightclub was recounted by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman in their 2004 biography of legendary Bluesman Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf.” Wolf’s drummer at the time was Sam Lay, an eccentric sort, who was quite a “ladies man”. Lay always carried a snub nosed .38 pistol in his front pocket as “insurance” in the event that a jealous boyfriend or husband entered the club looking to settle a score with him. The story goes that one night, in the midst of some particularly aggressive drumming, the gun discharged and he shot off his own testicle. Talk about hitting the down beat!)

That gun in that nightclub in East St. Louis in 1957 started a stampede. Davis and Mr. Nighthawk were playing that evening and by the end of the night, Davis had sustained multiple fractures to his legs left him confined to a wheelchair.

But once again, he refused to let that stop him from playing his music. He continued to work the juke joint circuit and eventually was “discovered” by Palmer, who befriended him and championed his music. Shortly thereafter, Davis began working the national and international blues circuit. Mr. Palmer then brought him to the Fat Possum record label where he recorded his 1994 debut album, “Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong”.

Along the way, musicians such as Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, guitarist Peter Buck from R.E.M and Mike McCready from Pearl Jam became admirers and/or collaborators.

So there you have the makings of a wonderful story of perseverance.

But that’s still not the end of his story.

In 2005, Davis had a stroke, which by most any standard classifies as a major set back.  As a result, he lost the ability to play the guitar. All he had left was the ability to sing. So that’s what he did.

By then, he was living in a nursing home. Apparently, that didn’t slow him down either as he returned to performing in 2009 and released two more albums “Last Man Standing” in 2015 and “Even the Devil Gets the Blues” in 2016.

His story is worth recapping. He was debilitated as a result of polio, confined to a wheelchair as a result of a bar room stampede, unable to play the guitar after suffering a stroke, moved into a nursing home, and with only his voice to draw upon, still found the drive and courage to continue to perform concerts and record albums.

If I ever have to stay in a nursing home, I hope whoever is in the next room is some cat as inspiring as CeDell Davis.

CeDell Davis simply refused to give up. He lived a remarkable life, exhibiting the tremendous power the human will to persevere, to move forward and continue on the road ahead. It also illustrates the power and allure of music. He refused to let difficult circumstances or events keep him from playing his music and moving forward with his life. He not only left us with his music, but he also provided an inspiring life lesson and example of how to persevere in the face of profoundly difficult challenges.

That’s a powerful Life lesson from the Blues.