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!
Whether a superintendent, principal or school board member, to say that you operate in a challenging educational environment is an understatement. In an increasingly complex world, expectations for providing students an education worthy of the 21st Century are rising. As is public skepticism regarding the effectiveness of schools in delivering that education. As if those challenges are not enough, the resources available to achieve that goal are declining.
In such an environment, education leaders will increasingly be challenged to examine how to invest resources in the most effective and efficient way. While many policy and funding priorities are driven by federal and state mandates, there is an area where local officials have ample authority to establish program and funding priorities: extracurricular activities.
Some maintain that decisions around sports and the arts are not nearly as important as those relating to core subjects or standardized testing issues. However, the priorities demonstrated through extracurricular spending have an outsized community influence. While a relatively small percentage of the overall school budget, they are highly visible activities that the community experiences directly through games and events. The fact is, what education leaders choose to emphasize and invest in speaks volumes as what they choose to identify as “important” greatly influences school and community values and culture. It is a complex relationship with no easy answers, particularly as it relates to the elephant in the room: tackle football.
Challenging the role of tackle football in our schools is the “third rail” of education reform. Regardless, we expect our education leaders to take on the tough challenges. That is what leadership is about. The days are over where boards continue to establish educational policy and funding priorities simply because we have always done it a certain way. The stakes are too high and the world is changing too rapidly.
My purpose is not to attack or destroy tackle football, but rather to encourage education leaders to consider its role in our schools in our rapidly changing world. It is a world that is galaxies removed from industrial America of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when football was formally incorporated into the fabric of our educational institutions. We live in an information-based, interconnected global economy and world community, where many of the jobs our students will have in the future do not even exist yet. It is a world economy where the most important currency of the future will be creativity.
But not only is the world around us changing rapidly, the world of tackle football is facing seismic shifts, much of it driven by its’ impact on brain health. Evidence of tackle football’s link to brain trauma continues to grow. This mounting evidence begs the question. What is the fundamental role of our educational institutions: to build and strengthen brains or to scramble them?
There is also the culture of tackle football. Many schools invest a tremendous amount of time, effort, energy, emotion and resources in tackle football. As a result, its influence on the academic values and educational culture of the school is enormous. But it is a violent, often sexist, win-at-all-cost culture with strong undercurrents of anti-intellectualism. The question is whether the culture of football is compatible with the academic culture and values of an educational institution.
As mentioned, board members and education and community leaders are operating in an exceedingly challenging environment. As a result, it is critical that they engage in open, honest, data driven analysis of whether tackle football is an activity that continues to deserve the enormous amount of time, effort, energy, emotion and resources that have traditionally been heaped upon it. In short, the question is whether tackle football remains a wise and effective educational investment.
To that end, following are six fundamental questions that boards should discuss, research and act upon as it relates to this challenge.
1 . Tackle football was incorporated into the educational system in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as a tool to provide students the skills to succeed in the industrial economy of that time. Should the fact that our industrial economy has given way to a creative, information based, world economy and community that requires a different set of workplace skills, be considered in funding decisions related to football?
2 . Have the potential human costs to students’ health associated with football participation become too great for an educational institution to assume?
3 . One of the most fundamental responsibilities of our school system is not only to instill in young people a love of lifelong learning, but also the tools to allow them to continue to learn over their lifetimes. An overwhelming majority of football players will never play the game after high school. Are there better extracurricular activities, for example music, which can be practiced for a lifetime, in which to invest to achieve this purpose?
4 . From a public health perspective, should interscholastic sports programs serve a relatively small portion of the student body largely for public entertainment (Current US Model)? Or, should school sports and wellness programs be structured to provide broad based activities that can be practiced by all students for a lifetime (European Model)?
5 . How do you know what your primary institutional constituents’ opinions are regarding the fit of tackle football in your school and community? Or, do you simply assume you know how supportive (or not) your community is of football and its costs? Perhaps some surveying of the community could provide valuable input?
6. Why not Flag Football? See: https://www.johngerdy.com/blog-overview/why-not-flag-football
At the end of the day, the primary responsibility of board members and education leaders is to evaluate and prioritize school and academic priorities and programming. While the emotions around this issue will be strong and the dialogue generated by the discussion of these questions will be heated, that fact is, the world is changing too rapidly to continue to sponsor activities that no longer yield an adequate return on educational dollars invested in them.
My father was a successful high school football coach. He was an old school, three yards and a cloud of dust sort of coach. Nothing bothered him more than watching his offense fumble the football. Offenders of what he considered the ultimate football sin were made to carry a football around school all day, every day until the next game. Conversely, as a defensive minded coach, nothing delighted him more than when his defensive unit caused and recovered a fumble.
Why not flag football?
A Georgia high school football player who came out of a game with an injury and then lost consciousness on the sideline has died, officials said. Dylan Thomas, a 16-year-old junior linebacker for the Pike County Pirates, came out of a game in the third quarter Friday night with what his coach Brad Webber said was a leg injury. He was pronounced dead Sunday night from a head injury.
How many more times does this scenario have to play out before 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?
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 than 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?
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.
So why not flag football?
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.