Football Derangement Syndrome: Article One

Given that we are getting ready to slide into football’s peak Season of Insanity that is the two week period prior to the Super Bowl, here’s an item that exemplifies just how severe our nation’s Football Derangement Syndrome has become. 

As reported by Cassandra Negley of Yahoo Sports (December 18, 2018), the Permian Basin Youth Football League requires that each player from ages 4 – 12 sign a letter of intent to show their commitment to a youth team in the league.  It even includes public “signing ceremonies” like those for high school players signing to play in college.

Negley adds this quote from league president Matt Lawdermilk:

“The 4 year-olds play flag. They can’t sign their name so they just scribble.”

Lawdermilk justifies the practice to deter coaches from recruiting players already on a team.

Illegally recruiting four year-olds?

Seriously? It would be funny if it wasn’t so sick.

A clear case of Football Derangement Syndrome. And we’ve got it bad!

How Elite Athletics Can Undermine Academic Values and Institutions

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You’ve read the stories. Maybe even in your local paper.

There are no shortages of accounts of the never-ending “arms race” in college athletics for programs to build palatial offices, stadiums or practice facilities. And, true to form, many of the priorities displayed by our colleges and universities filter down to influence attitudes and policies at the high school level. The result is that those attitudes and examples far too often influence local school board decisions to appropriate millions of dollars to install an artificial turf football field, a new scoreboard or to upgrade locker rooms. Simply consider the price tag of the McKinney Independent School District’s (located outside of Dallas) 12,000 seat football stadium: $70 million. That’s not quite as much as the 12,000 seat stadium built by the Katy ISD, located outside of Houston: $72 million.  These stadiums are paid with taxpayer funds. Often, these appropriations are made while music, arts or other academic programs are being cut or eliminated.

It seems as if we can always find some extra money to provide the very best athletics facilities, regardless of how such decisions impact a school’s broader, long-term academic culture and educational environment. We seem to believe that our athletes deserve the very best in coaching, training equipment and facilities. But appropriating the necessary resources to have very best for our artists, musicians, actors and scientists? Not so much.

One of the primary justifications for such investment priorities is that sports is the “front porch” of the educational institution. The logic is that it is important that your front porch be well-kept and up to date as it not only is a reflection on the institution as a whole, but serves to supplement and positively contribute to the academic mission of the institution.

Because of the tremendous visibility and influence of school athletic programs, their impact on the values of, and public attitudes toward, our schools, colleges and universities is enormous. Elite interscholastic and intercollegiate athletics have become so entrenched within the educational system that it is difficult to imagine our schools and universities without them; athletics and education are inseparably linked, feeding off each other, all for the greater good of the institution.

However, if we take a closer and more critical look at athletics’ impact on our intellectual values and educational institutions, the reality suggests otherwise. As school and college sport in America has grown in popularity, its’ relationship to education has become skewed. Rather than strengthening our educational values and supplementing the missions of our educational institutions, elite, school based organized athletics has come to actually undermine them. Despite our refusal to acknowledge it, there is a fundamental inconsistency in the relationship between athletics and education. Simply put, the forces that drive athletics and those that should guide educational policy are, for the most part, diametrically opposed.

At the core of this conflicted relationship, is the fact that coaches are driven to win games. Coaches rationalize their intense drive by indicating that if they do not win, they will be fired. While that may be true to varying degrees, the fact is, coaches coach because they are highly competitive with a tremendous desire to win. Athletic administrators, most of whom are ex-athletes or coaches with the same type of competitive drive, must help their coaches win games to fill stadiums to generate revenue to pay for the expense of the program or team. If the athletic administrator does not meet budget, he or she will soon be out of a job. Such goals are short term -- to win next week’s game to generate revenue to pour back into the program to help win the following week’s game.

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The goal of our educational institutions is to prepare individuals to be productive citizens for the rest of their lives and, in doing so, keep our nation a vibrant and strong world power. As is always the case when balancing short and long term goals, conflicts arise. These inherent conflicts have nothing to do with "good guys" versus "bad guys"; they are simply the realities of two very different cultures. There is not a coach in the country, at any level, who does not want every one of their athletes to be successful in life after their playing days are over. The problem, however, is that for too many communities and coaches, it eventually comes back to winning games. Thus, it is easy to understand why coaches and athletic administrators are primarily interested in maximizing athletic performance. In short, the long-term academic interests, goals and priorities of our educational institutions are in direct conflict with the highly competitive, short-term, economically driven interests of the athletic establishment.

The extent to which organized sport subverts our nation’s educational interests is numerous. At the high school level, it is the passing of athletes who have not mastered the required work. The prevailing notion is that it is acceptable if Johnny can’t read as long as he can play. Coaches plead the case of " a good kid, whose only chance at a better life is through an athletic scholarship and he won’t be eligible for that scholarship unless he passes this course." Far too often, the teacher or principal complies, not wanting to be responsible for denying a youngster his "only chance". Unfortunately, everyone knows -- classmates, parents, coaches, teachers, and Johnny himself -- that Johnny did not deserve to pass. The affect on the academic credibility of the institution is enormous. Such acts, and they are far from isolated, serve to cheapen the value and standing of education in our communities.

This academic fraud is perpetuated when our institutions of higher learning spend significant resources recruiting and later admitting Johnny, despite the fact that he is unqualified to perform college work and unlikely to graduate. Once the "student-athlete" is enrolled, it becomes all too clear that the primary reason for being at college is to produce on the fields of play. All else -- education, social life, and personal development -- occupies a distant place on the list of priorities for what in reality is an "athlete-student". All this in the name of "educational opportunity". All at the expense of academic integrity.

Athletics undercuts the integrity of our academic institutions in other ways. The obscenely large salaries universities pay their football and basketball coaches is an example of institutional priorities that are wildly out of balance. It is not uncommon for these coaches to not only make more money than the university president but in 39 of our 50 states the highest paid public employee is a college football or basketball coach. Beyond this warped salary structure rests the issue of the “Godlike” status that is bestowed upon popular coaches; a status that is far out of proportion to their contribution to positive academic outcomes. What sort of message does this send about community and educational priorities?

            In short, we have come to glorify a culture within our educational system that elevates athletics, often at the expense of academic excellence. It’s a culture that accepts the notion that it is an educational institution’s responsibility to provide the very best in athletic facilities, coaching, and support so elite athletes have every opportunity to develop their athletic abilities to the fullest. While there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to provide the resources and support to help an individual develop fully as an athlete, when those purposes begin to undermine the most fundamental, educational purpose of our schools and universities, we, as a society, pay a steep price.

            Our future as a nation depends upon having a strong educational system that prepares our children to become great thinkers, scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs rather than quarterbacks and point guards. The fact is, interscholastic and intercollegiate athletic programs provide the clearest and cleanest window through which the American public views our educational system.  That being the case, it is absolutely critical that the fundamental message projected through that window is a message that reinforces the primacy of the value and importance of education. If our educational leaders do not forcefully stand up and claim, not simply in words, but in deeds, that educational integrity and academic excellence is far more important than athletic glory, then who will?


The Future of Tackle Football: The Bricks Just Keep Coming

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Sometimes you can repeat a phrase or articulate a theory or belief so often that it begins to become simply background noise or, if repeated enough, irrelevant. I am referring to my ongoing use of the metaphor, “another brick in the wall” as it relates to the future of tackle football in America. It seems as if no sooner do I write an essay identifying a trend or incident that, coupled with the larger trends of declining television viewership, declining numbers of participants at the youth league level, increased public and media scrutiny, contributes to the steady, drip-by-drip and brick-by-brick evolution of our society’s relationship with the sport of tackle football.

These past few weeks offered another couple of bricks to add to the building of that wall. We’re accumulating so many bricks that we’ll soon have enough left over to “build that wall” on our Southern border. In fact, I’m sure Mexico will appreciate those excess bricks as it will reduce their building costs when they pay for it.

The addition of these bricks in the wall relate to two recent events that, once again, demonstrate how the culture surrounding the sport of football continues to reveal itself to be increasingly out of touch with rapidly changing American values, attitudes and norms. It is significant that the culture surrounding the game and its coaches is receiving such increased scrutiny as it is safe to say that for far too long, the football community has gotten a relatively free pass relating to the negative impact and influences of the culture surrounding the game.

Media and academic critics have long questioned certain aspects of that culture as it relates to the brutal nature of the game, its’ anti-intellectualism, the corrupting influence of the win at any cost culture and the sense of entitlement that athletes and star coaches often exhibit. But for the most part, the scandals that have lead to increased scrutiny in these areas and the attention paid to them, generally fizzles out over time and we find ourselves resorting to our traditional treatment of coaches and programs as being too important and too big to seriously challenge.

But like a wall that becomes stronger as more bricks are added, increased scrutiny begets increased scrutiny. As the light of sunshine begins to spread wider and penetrate deeper into the culture of football, additional areas of concern begin to reveal themselves.

The first is the case of Ohio State University where the university suspended its football coach, Urban Meyer, for three games – a mere slap on the wrist – after he apparently lied about and deleted emails relating to his mishandling of domestic violence allegations against one of his assistant coaches. There was a day when there would be little initial scrutiny, much less dogged follow-up and investigation, into issues at the intersection of the culture of football and domestic violence. For far too long, in such cases, it has been the woman who has been shamed or pressured to quietly bear the scars and pain in the name of “protecting the coach and program”. Often such accusations and claims never saw the light of day. But in the #MeToo and social media age, those days are gone. And as increased light is being shed on the “boys will be boys” culture of football, what the public is beginning to see more plainly, is a culture that is increasingly out of line with America’s rapidly changing social norms and mores regarding treatment of women and domestic abuse.

The second incident is the tragic death of the University of Maryland freshman football player, Jordan McNair, a freshman lineman who died of heat stroke after running a set of 110-yard wind sprints. The first question is why lineman, who hardly ever run more than 20 yards on a play during games are running 110 yard sprints. Beyond that, apparently Maryland either did not have in place or did not follow commonly accepted treatment procedures for preventing and treating heat stroke.

But in the “increased scrutiny begets increased scrutiny” category, in the investigative process of McNair’s death, according to an ESPN report, several current football players and people close to the program described a toxic coaching culture under head coach D.J. Durkin based on fear and intimidation. Belittlement, humiliation, extreme verbal abuse and embarrassment of players was common. According to ESPN, one player was belittled verbally after passing out during a drill. Coaches also used food punitively as it was reported that a player said he was forced to overeat to the point of vomiting.

As a former all-American and professional basketball player and son of a high school football coach, I have both witnessed and been on the receiving end of intense, profanity laced tirades. Highly competitive sports are intense and emotionally charged. As a player, you understand that a certain amount of that comes with the territory. But there are limits. Coaches don’t get carte blanche to humiliate, belittle and berate young people. No one does. And in particular, anyone associated with an educational institution. Athletes deserve the same opportunity as all students to learn and experience college life in an environment that is safe and one that treats them with dignity and respect.

There are two salient issues as it relates to this particular situation and the culture of football in general. The sad reality is that far too many coaches and athletic administrators don’t think of football “student-athletes” as students at all, but rather as hired guns and dumb jocks. As a result, they are denied the same rights as other college students, that being the right to have a quality educational experience and earn a meaningful degree. In short, it is clear to everyone, and in particular to the players themselves, that they are on campus, first and foremost, to play ball.

The second relates to the most fundamental justification used by the athletic establishment for athletic programs and their coaches to a part of the educational institution in the first place. Specifically, that athletic programs supplement the academic mission of the institution and that coaches are in fact “teachers”. If coaches justify their place on campus in that they are educators and teachers, why aren’t they held to the same standards of decorum and behavior as all other faculty members?  You can’t have it both ways. You can’t justify your place and role in an academic community by claiming to be an educator while engaging in abusive practices that create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.  An atmosphere where students are verbally abused, belittled, berated and humiliated is hardly a nurturing educational environment.

The fact is, while there may have been a time when it was widely accepted that screaming, berating and intimidating players was simply a part of how coaches “made boys into men”, those days are over. While such behavior and methods might be acceptable for training Marines for war, intercollegiate and interscholastic football is not war. Such behavior has no place within an educational institution.

Granted, these two incidents, in and of themselves, will not bring the American football industrial complex 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.  Consider these as another couple of bricks in the wall in America’s reassessment of the role of football in our society.

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. 

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.

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.