Why Not Flag Football?

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

Why Not Flag Football?

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

Why not flag football?

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

But consider this.

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

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

So, how about Flag Football?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why not flag football?

WSJ - Coming Soon to Campus: The $100,000 Hotel Room

By Laine Higgins

Texas A&M University on Thursday will hold a lottery in which the winners walk away with an unusual—and very expensive—prize: The right to pay $100,000 for a hotel reservation.

The six-figure price tag is largely based on a single amenity: The yet-to-be-built hotel will sit across the street—96 feet away, to be exact—from Kyle Field, where the Aggie football team plays six or seven games each year.

Sound absurd? Thus far more than 750 Texas A&M alumni have expressed interest in the program, though not all of them had put down a refundable $5,000 deposit as of Monday. Less than a third of that number will win. For sleeping quarters on the hotel’s top floor—13 suites and 36 standard rooms—the deposit was $10,000. Those reservations, where the starting point for bids ranges from $125,000 to $475,000, will be auctioned off on Tuesday.

The clamor for the “guaranteed room options,” as they are called, is possibly the apogee of college efforts to wring extra revenue from well-heeled alumni on football game days. Already, most major universities require mandatory donations, usually thousands of dollars, for fans wanting premium season tickets. Some schools sell licenses for primo parking spaces.

“These folks are working every single angle that they can possibly think of to squeeze more juice out of the athletic machine,” says John Gerdy, a former associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and author of several books on collegiate athletic reform. “On one hand, it’s brilliant.”

The guaranteed room options, or GROs, work much like the personal seat licenses now offered by many professional sports teams—only for hotel rooms rather than season tickets. At A&M, the holders will make a one-time, tax-deductible $100,000 donation to the university in exchange for the right to reserve a specific room on any day for the next 10 years. They also get a plaque engraved with their names on the door...

Read Full Article Here

At the end of an arduous journey, a refugee family rejoices with music

LNP recently featured an article by Dr. John Gerdy, highlighting the power of music (and the role of music) in the journey of a refugee in Lancaster, PA.

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Another refugee family arrives in Lancaster, a family of six: Asukulu, his wife, Nyassa, and their four children: Temsi , 11, Vumilia, 9, Ivon, 5, and Maria, 2. 

They fled the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and spent the last eight years in a refugee camp in Kenya.

Like other refugee families, they arrive here with few possessions. But after surviving a civil war and a long stretch in a camp, Asukulu came with his greatest possession of all: his family, fully intact....

 Read the entire article here.

LNP’s new section lifts up genuine mission of our schools

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Full Article posted here LNP recently launched a new Schools section to be published the last Saturday of each month. According to LNP, “Pages will be chock full of honor rolls, classroom projects, student-of-the-month recognitions, choral achievements and school-initiated community programs.”

This is a significant step toward elevating the place and profile of science, technology, community service, music and the arts, not only in our schools but in our community.

It represents an opportunity for our community to recognize and support our schools, teachers and students in a way that heretofore has hardly existed. This is why it is important that we, as a community, support this effort.

It is fair to say that if a complete stranger to our society read a newspaper on a daily basis, his or her overwhelming impression would be that the primary purpose of our schools — and in particular, our high schools — was to underwrite and support sports teams.

The fact is, sports are nowhere near as central to the fundamental purpose of an educational institution as are science, technology, math and the activities that nurture creativity.

As entertaining as sports are and as much as we love them, it is far more important that we nurture and support those academic activities that are most central to the educational purpose and mission of our schools.

Bear Bryant, the legendary football coach at the University of Alabama, once said, “50,000 people do not come to campus to watch a history lecture.”

While that may be true, the core purpose of our educational system is to educate young people by nurturing in them the skills necessary to be productive citizens in the workplace and in the community. And it is far more important for schools to produce students proficient in science, math, technology and the arts than it is to produce football or basketball players.

How we cover and celebrate athletic contests versus the incredible things teachers and students are doing in the classroom, studio or community, provides a very visible example of community priorities.

LNP, as Lancaster’s main newspaper, has enormous impact and influence. Its new Schools section sends the clear message that academic achievement is important and valued in our community.

And the more we celebrate those achievements, the more our students will strive to achieve, creating a positive feedback loop. A little recognition from the community newspaper can go a long way in making academic achievement and community service “cool.”

So what can we do to support LNP’s efforts in this regard?

A common complaint of business leaders is that there aren’t enough potential employees with the necessary academic skills to add significant value to their companies. That being the case, businesses would be well served by supporting the Schools section through advertising. They might also begin to sponsor or underwrite, in partnership with LNP or schools, various academic, art or community service awards and recognition activities.

There are also things that individual citizens can do. First, take the time to read the section. What you will discover is that we have an incredible number of young people doing amazing things in science, math, the arts and community service.

And when you read of something amazing that a student has accomplished, tell your friends and neighbors about it. Better yet, take the time to jot a quick congratulatory note to the young person. And when you hear of a student doing something extraordinary, report it to LNP so it can be covered.

Highlighting these accomplishments may inspire parents and other citizens to pursue other initiatives that celebrate academic excellence. Perhaps it will result in more discussion and recognition regarding academic and educational issues in our schools. Or maybe it will lead to more schools establishing academic, arts or science, rather than simply athletic, halls of fame.

While it is certainly nice to celebrate the athletic accomplishments of students, it is critical that we recognize, celebrate and support the academic, artistic and community service accomplishments of our young people as well.

Being recognized by the community for one’s success is a tremendous boost to self-esteem. All of our children, not simply our athletes, are contributing to our schools and community in meaningful and important ways that deserve recognition.

LNP has provided our community with a tremendous opportunity to not just advance the mission of our schools but to make Lancaster a place that embraces education, science, technology, the arts and community service.

Symbols and advocacy are important. They raise public awareness that in turn can lead to action. Our support for LNP’s Schools section will convey the clear sense that Lancaster County values student accomplishment in science, technology, engineering, the arts and community service every bit as much as athletic accomplishment.

The ROI of Athletics

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In evaluating its athletics program, the board must consider fiscal conditions, the welfare of athletes, institutional impact, opportunity costs, and brand risks associated with athletics, as well as the changing public environment and attitudes about the role of athletics in our institutions and culture.

Given the enormous financial stakes, intense media scrutiny, and the pressure to win at any cost, boards should know if the supposed educational and character-building benefits that accrue to athletes are real.

The most fundamental responsibility educational institutions have to all students, including athletes, is to provide a legitimate opportunity to earn a meaningful educational and social experience in a safe and secure environment. Boards must determine whether their institutions are delivering on that promise.


The relationship between intercollegiate athletics and higher education has always been less than comfortable. But like an athlete’s body that eventually wears down after years of tears, bumps, and bruises, the forces pulling at that relationship have become exceedingly strained. Is the relationship broken? From soaring budgets to seemingly never-ending scandals to mounting legal pressures and growing concerns about athletics’ impact on campus culture and about the rights and physical and academic welfare of student-athletes, it is no stretch to say that the ROI (return on investment) of intercollegiate athletics is being questioned and challenged at institutions of all types and sizes.

In this environment, all boards, regardless of conference and divisional affiliation, need to undertake a thorough, clear-eyed analysis of their athletic programs’ alignment with institutional mission and strategy. The fundamental question: Do they contribute to institutional mission in relevant and timely ways? Is the amount of spending on athletics proportional to its contribution to mission and its educational value?

Make no mistake, significant upheaval is on the horizon. If higher education leaders don’t manage and structure that change, outside forces will. Here are five key questions to support the review process.

DO YOU HAVE ACCURATE INFORMATION?

Boards must be persistent in determining that the information they receive from institutional personnel truly reflects concerns about fiscal conditions, the welfare of athletes, institutional impact, opportunity costs, and brand risks associated with athletics. Are boards accurately assessing the changing public environment and attitudes about the role of athletics in our institutions and culture? Further, does your college or university really know how all of your constituents feel about the role and impact of athletics on campus? Or, does the board simply assume it knows the level of support for athletics, its cost, and impact on academic values and campus culture? For example, can you assume that because a program does not award athletic scholarships or spend lavishly on coaches’ salaries, that its potential to undermine academic values and institutional mission and strategy is minimal? Will de-emphasizing a sport adversely impact alumni giving and support? How do you know? Perhaps such a change would actually attract additional, more academically oriented donors.

In short, in a rapidly changing environment, it is unwise to make long-term, strategic decisions based on age-old anecdotes or simply because “we’ve always done it this way.”

ARE THE SUPPOSED BENEFITS RELEVANT AND TIMELY?

In conducting a thorough ROI analysis, it is tempting to consider various costs associated with athletics. While critical, it’s equally important to examine whether athletic departments are delivering the benefits long used to justify their place on campus.

For example, a primary defense for sponsorship of athletics, and in particular football, is that it serves as the “front porch” of the institution. But while the games provide compelling entertainment, it’s fair to say that much of what the public sees is not pretty. Increasingly, what the public and news media call attention to is hypocrisy, athlete exploitation, exorbitant spending, academic fraud, and, in the words of author Taylor Branch, in his widely read Atlantic magazine article “The Shame of College Sports,” “an unmistakable whiff of plantation.”

Is athletics a brand element that will advance the educational mission in the 21st century? With increasing evidence about brain trauma associated with football— as well as other sports, including women’s soccer—do colleges and universities want to highlight and celebrate an activity that places students at significant risk of life-altering brain damage?

Boards would be well served to consider whether they are approaching a point at which the physical toll for young people has become so clear that public perception of institutions that willingly “sacrifice” not only students but also their academic souls in the name of athletic glory may have shifted. Consider that in the early 1900s, boxing was one of America’s most popular sports. The NCAA sponsored boxing until 1960, when it became clear that the risk outweighed the benefits. Are we there yet with football?

Given the enormous financial stakes, intense media scrutiny, and the pressure to win at any cost, boards should know whether the supposed educational and character-building benefits that accrue to athletes are real. Have intercollegiate athletics become more about winning at any cost than about the process of education? Given that one of the leading justifications for athletics on campus is that sports supplement the educational process and instills positive character traits in participants, it is imperative that this question is answered.

Educators and sports advocates claim a series of positive impacts to justify athletics’ place on campus. Boards must evaluate whether these oft-stated benefits— including learning discipline, persistence, and personal responsibility— continue to apply in the 21st century, and if so, whether athletic departments are, in fact, delivering them.

Or, stated differently, can universities continue to sponsor and tolerate such a highly visible activity that on many levels appears to contradict their purposes?

DO WE UNDERSTAND THE TRUE COSTS?

Traditionally, discussions surrounding the cost of athletics have focused almost exclusively on hard finances. But as information relating to finances becomes more transparent, it is clear that athletics has not been as fiscally sound an investment as long believed. Virtually every financial trend, throughout every NCAA division, points to athletics expenses increasing not only at a faster rate than generated revenues, but also far outstripping increases in overall institutional spending. Further, not only is the expense per student-athlete continuing to rise, but the total athletic expenditures as a percentage of total institutional expenses also continues to increase. The fact is, there are no institutions in either Division II or III, and only a small handful of Division I institutions, where generated revenues exceed expenses. And by all indications, institutional deficit spending on athletics, already significant, will continue to grow.

Boards must consider whether this is a sustainable model and how such trends impact not only educational opportunity costs but also, in an age of rising student debt, the use of student fees to underwrite athletics. Per-student fees (assessed on all enrolled students to support the athletics program) are on many campuses in the hundreds of dollars, and in some cases are over $1,000 annually. When financial aid is considered, not only are students and their families supporting intercollegiate athletics programs that they may not patronize—let alone participate in—but state and federal governments are, as well. (See “A Question For” by John T. Casteen III in Trusteeship, July/August 2016.)

Regardless of an institution’s level of investment in athletics, it is critical that university leaders consider whether that amount is appropriate and commensurate with the academic and other educational benefits derived from athletics programs. Are potential educational opportunity costs associated with athletics spending detrimental to the development of other academic programs? When it comes to athletics within an educational institution, is bigger necessarily better? Does participation in a championship-winning team provide greater educational benefit to an athlete than participation in a nonchampionship- winning team? And in an age of rising educational expectations and financial pressures, is it prudent to continue to engage in increasingly expensive efforts to “keep up with the Joneses,” a practice that occurs, to varying degrees, in all NCAA divisions?

Finally, does the athletic “culture” align with the institution’s? Research tells us that even at small, elite liberal arts institutions, sports’ impact on admissions, academic performance, and campus culture is significant, because athletes tend to make up a larger percentage of the student body than at major Division I institutions. In other words, it is important that boards, regardless of their institution’s size or NCAA divisional affiliation, consider exactly how athletics impact educational values, campus culture, and institutional brand.

WHAT IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO ATHLETES?

An educational institution’s most fundamental responsibility to every student is twofold. First, to provide an opportunity to earn a quality academic credential, and second, to keep students safe and healthy while on campus by establishing a safe and secure learning and social environment.

There is little question that the academic and social experiences of scholarship athletes at far too many institutions have been woefully inadequate and, in some cases, fraudulent. The news media have documented instances of institutions admitting underprepared athletes and providing “bogus” classes and majors, all in the name of achieving athletic glory. When combined with the excessive athletic training and time demands placed on athletes, their academic and social experiences may have little in common with those of the rest of the students.

To think that this doesn’t occur, in some form, at nearly every campus in America would be misguided. Are athletes being held to the same academic, social, behavioral, and judicial standards that apply to all students in order to form a healthy, functioning academic community? Or does “athletic privilege and exception” exist on their campuses? Boards should know.

And if questions regarding institutional responsibility for providing a legitimate academic and social experience are not enough, their ability to ensure students’ health and safety is now in question, too.

The primary driver of this conversation on many campuses is football, although depending on the institution and region of the country, one could add basketball, baseball, ice hockey, or lacrosse. Football’s engrained tradition, enormous entertainment appeal, and economic clout make it the unmistakable driver of the athletics enterprise at all levels. Football is the elephant in the room in the debate regarding the role of sports not only on campus but in our society. And the fact is, the rapidly accumulating evidence about football and brain trauma has raised the question of the game’s place in the academy to a new level. It is now a moral issue.

How does this square with institutional mission if we sponsor and celebrate an activity that research tells us can be profoundly dangerous and debilitating?

At the end of the day, boards must determine whether their institutions are delivering on the many promises they’ve made to student-athletes.

DO WE HAVE THE COURAGE AND CONVICTION TO LEAD?

Our society looks to higher education to provide broad cultural leadership and direction regarding the issues of the day, including the appropriate role of sports in our schools and society at large. To underestimate the impact of athletics on the larger issues of the public’s perception of the value of education versus athletics, as well as higher education’s ability to effectively fulfill its public mission, would be shortsighted. By directly addressing these issues on their campuses, boards can reaffirm the primacy of academic and educational excellence. This is a seminal moment for college and university leaders. It is a national teaching opportunity we cannot afford to waste.

But before boards can provide such leadership, they must look internally and ask whether they are prepared and have the courage and conviction to go where the resulting dialogue, logic, and data lead them. If, for example, it is determined that the athletics department is effectively contributing to institutional mission, perhaps we should invest more heavily in it. But what if it becomes clear that it is not? What if the various costs and institutional risks associated with athletics have come to outweigh its benefits? What should a responsible board do? Courage and conviction will be crucial. If there is any American institution that must demonstrate clearly that academic excellence outweighs athletic glory, it must be higher education.