USA Football, the NFL funded national governing body for the sport recently held its annual meeting in Orlando. According to a January 30, 2018 account in the New York Times, they would have been better off holding it at a beach resort as it would have made it much easier for participants to dig holes to bury their heads in the sand.
According to Ken Belson, the conference amounted to a series of coaches, former players and various administrators coming to the lectern to deliver the same stern warning: “Football is under attack and your job is to change the narrative.” Apparently, many of the speakers insisted that the sport is “vital to the American experience, essential for its survival, and it doesn’t have a health and safety problem as much as it has a messaging problem.” David Baker, the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame said that if we lose football, “I don’t know if America can survive.”
I must have missed the American history lesson that explained how George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton felt a need to carve into the U.S. Constitution a clause specific to football being essential to the survival of our nation. Trust me, America will survive and thrive with or without football. Yes, it is extremely entertaining. Yes, we love being fans and being a part of a “tribe”. And granted, playing youth tackle football can have a positive impact on participants. But the fact is, so can involvement with any number of other sports. At the end of the day, it is simply game. To think it is essential for very survival of America is delusional. That said, the focus of this essay is not football in general, but rather youth tackle football specifically.
If Baker and his colleagues would lift their collective heads out of the sand and take an honest look at the current state of the game, they’d see that virtually all of the research emerging regarding football and brain trauma is making the connection between the two irrefutable. As a result, more parents, including many former NFL stars, are expressing concerns about letting their children play or prohibiting it outright. Meanwhile, for the second straight year, television ratings for the NFL fell both for the regular season and playoffs. And in the last two months, legislation to ban tackle football before the age of 14 was introduced in four states (Illinois, California, Maryland and New York).
Clearly, something is happening here. And it’s not simply a product of poor messaging.
If these developments on their own are not enough to paint a very cloudy picture of football’s future, something even more fundamental is at work, particularly as it applies to the future of tackle football sponsored by our junior high and high schools. Specifically, it relates to the fundamental justification for football being incorporated into our educational system in the first place.
Until the mid 1800s, America was primarily an agrarian economy and society. And, true to its purpose, our educational system reflected and served the needs of that society. Schools existed to provide the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. There wasn’t much time for anything else. Sports, games, music and the arts were considered frivolous and, for the most part, didn’t have much of a formal role in schools.
It was not until the Industrial Age that sports and football in particular, began to gain a foothold within our school curriculums. America’s emerging middle class began to experience a rising standard of living, with shorter workdays and more disposable income. As a result, it became more accepted to engage in a little “frivolity.”
But in the case of football, there was another influence at work. The primary reason football was incorporated into high schools had little to do with education in the traditional sense. The driving force behind the implementation of such programs were the great industrialists of the late 1800’s and early 1900s. Rather than having an interest in educating through sport, these business leaders looked upon organized athletics and in particular football, as a means to train, socialize and control a workforce. In short, Industrial America required workers to be dependable, in good physical shape, able to work as part of a team and, above all, obedient. It was widely believed that football instilled these characteristics. In the minds of factory owners, there was little room for lofty thinking on the assembly line. Industrialists of that time did not want their line workers to be great thinkers, preferring that they passively conform. “The leaders of American industry felt that their workers needed to be loyal and punctual, but not necessarily good academically.” (Miracle and Rees, Lessons of the Locker Room: The Myth of School Sports, 1994, p. 178.)
At its origin, football was considered an extracurricular activity that was an entertaining addition to a school’s broad offerings, but certainly not central to the educational mission of the institution. But as our society’s love affair with football, grew, so too did football’s place of importance in our schools. As a result, football has, if not structurally, then culturally and philosophically, moved closer to being considered a “basic”, or at least a more important part of the curriculum, than other extracurricular activities such as music, theatre or visual arts.
Because this notion has become so engrained in our public psyche over the past century, we continue to accept it without question. If this were not the case, why has it been far more likely that arts programs, rather than football programs, are reduced or eliminated in times of budget shortfalls?
It is precisely this long held belief of the educational utility of football as it applies to instilling in youth the necessary skills to successfully compete in the workforce and economy of the day that foretells its future in America’s educational system.
In short, the fundamental educational rationalization for incorporating football into the fabric of our educational system has gone the way of the leather football helmet. It simply does not apply in today’s world.
The fact is, our economy and our society have changed dramatically since these programs were initially incorporated into the educational system. We no longer live in an industrial economy that requires workers to be physically fit, unquestionably obedient and able to methodically perform the manual tasks required for an assembly line. While football may have been a wise educational and economic investment in the early 1900s, continuing to invest in an activity best suited to prepare workers for a world and economy that no longer exists, is misguided. Music, for example, is a far better educational investment than football in providing the creative skills necessary to succeed in the interrelated, global, information-based, creative economy and world community of the future.
Change is difficult. It is often much easier to cling to the comfortable models from the past. But how silly would it be for a politician, school administrator or community leader to propose reforming our schools to place the primary emphasis on preparing students to become farmers and steel workers? That may have been quite reasonable in 1850 or 1900, but to propose that today would be considered crazy. While we still need a certain number of farmers and steel workers, to systematically structure our educational system to concentrate on preparing future generations for an agricultural or industrial economy is ludicrous.
This is why it is important to have a serious discussion about extracurricular activities in our educational system. This discussion must take place against a background that recognizes the fact that America’s economy has changed from one based on industrial might to one based on creativity and innovation. Clearly, the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace of the future have far more to do with brains than brawn, requiring intellectual and creative skills nurtured in the classrooms and concert halls rather than muscles built in the weight room and on the playing field.
It comes down to whether we, as educational and community leaders, continue to fund an activity that scrambles brains and is better suited to prepare our children for an industrial economy that is long gone or invest in an activity that strengthens and builds brain capacity and brain function that is perfectly suited to prepare our children to more effectively meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. We should welcome this discussion and analysis, because if we approach it honestly, the end result will be better schools serving our children and communities more effectively.
In the end, isn’t that what we all want?