Brain Trauma

High School Tackle Football: Its Origins Foretell its Future

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?

Creating a Football “Safe Space” for Kids and Parents

When football legends Bo Jackson, Harry Carson and Mike Ditka say it, it’s a big deal. People pay attention to what athletes of their stature say.

The “it” is that they would never let their sons play football.

With increasing revelations regarding the link between tackle football and brain trauma, this should come as no surprise. If anyone knows the extreme violence and physicality of football it is those who have played it for a living.

It’s difficult to say exactly what sort of an impact their statements have had on the participation levels of tackle football. Regardless, their comments have raised eyebrows and generated dialogue. When a football legend makes such a statement, it opens the door for other players to offer thoughts on the subject. Every time another NFL star joins the chorus, the impact is compounded.

One important impact they have had is that it is helping to create a football “safe space” for kids who really don’t want to play. Far too often young kids feel they are expected to play and thus, believe they have little choice in the matter. They don’t want to disappoint their father, friends or community. That’s a lot of pressure on a 10, 12 or 15 year-old, particularly in communities where football is considered very important.

I was one of those kids.

I loved the game early in childhood. One of my earliest childhood memories is at age five, discovering a new football under the Christmas tree. Soon thereafter, I was fully decked out in my football “uniform” kicking that football all around the snowy, empty side lot next to our duplex apartment. I was “all in” on football.

But by the time I was in sixth grade, I realized that football was not for me.  I had fallen hopelessly in love with basketball and wanted to play it year round. I came to dread the arrival of football season because it meant that I wouldn’t be able to play much, if any, basketball.

As a very athletic son of the high school football coach, I felt that pressure. By the eighth grade, I actively tried to gain the additional weight needed to put me over the community league-mandated limit.  I was relieved when I weighed in well above the limit. I quietly celebrated with my Mom.

While the fact that I no longer wanted to play football created ample friction and angst in our household, my Father, to his great credit, understood and respected my love of basketball.

My guess is that had there been a prominent and growing list of football legends talking about not letting their children play the game back in 1971, it would have been much easier and more acceptable for me and other kids to opt out of playing football.

“If Troy Aikman, Adrian Peterson and Terry Bradshaw say they wouldn’t let their sons play football, why do I have to play?”

If that isn’t enough impact, here’s an even bigger one. The impact on parents and in particular, Fathers. Kids aren’t the only ones who feel peer and community pressure to play football. Parents often feel community pressure to have their sons be a part of the team. Having NFL legends say that they would not allow their kids to play football makes it easier for a parent to say the same thing.

“Your boy playing football?”


“Why not?”

“If Bart Scott, Brett Favre and Jermichael Finley all say that they won’t allow their sons to play because it’s too dangerous, why would I allow my son?”

The impact of the comments of these football legends should not be underestimated. For in making them, they have provided “cover” for kids who don’t want to play to declare without risk of ridicule or having to face the prospect of undue peer pressure that they aren’t going to play.
And perhaps even more important, it provides similar “cover” and “safe space” for parents to support their child’s wish not to play or to simply prohibit their son from playing even if he wants to.

Brain on Football vs. Brain on Music

Picture this. A magnified image of a cross section of the human brain. The image shows hundreds of tiny brownish bits. These bits are toxic proteins, called tau, that form after brain trauma.  Tau can inhibit cellular functions in the brain, leading to depression, dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.

Now, picture this. Another magnified image. This one shows activities associated with vibrant cellular connections. The brain is seemingly swarming with activity, actually brightening the image.

The first image is of the brain of a former football player. The formation of the tau is the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of repeated hits to the head. These violent hits, in effect, shake or “scramble” the brain, flooding it with chemicals that deaden cellular receptors and tear neural connections linked to learning and memory. In short, the connections necessary for optimal brain function and development are being shaken loose. 

The second image is of the brain while a person is playing music. Brain function is about connections between cells and neurons. Healthy brains have strong, clear and vibrant connections. Research tells us that playing music triggers activity in cells and neurons in the brain that are linked to concentration, memory and creativity, thus refining the development of the brain and the entire neurological system.  Further, playing music not only strengthens these connections but creates new connections, thus widening the brain’s neural network. That activity virtually bursts through the second image.

There has been an increasing amount of discussion regarding how football programs, from the NFL to Pop Warner football, are attempting to manage “concussion risk.”  Without question, the revelations of the serious consequences to brain health and function that result from the repeated hits to the head sustained in football have taken the debate regarding the role of football in our culture to a new level. While most of the debate has centered on the NFL’s efforts to mitigate those negative effects, the significance of the issue as it applies to our nation’s educational system, particularly our high schools and junior high schools, is far more consequential. Specifically, we now have to give serious consideration to the question of whether the potential human costs to children’s and young adults’ health have become too great for an educational institution to assume.

Certainly, there have always been physical costs to participants. Football is a violent game. But we are not talking about sprained ankles and broken bones. Sprained ankles and broken bones eventually heal. We are talking about young people’s brains. Brains don’t always heal.
Football, at its core, is a tremendously violent game. Even if it is made “safer” with increased monitoring and improved tackling technique (an outcome that is not assured as, to date, there is little empirical evidence that such change in techniques will actually reduce the rate or severity of concussions), the risk remains extremely high. Say football starts out at 9 on a risk scale of 1 to 10 and, over a long period of time and with great effort, safety is improved such that the risk factor is lowered to 7. Is that nearly enough?

This is a dialogue that is long overdue, the brain trauma issue notwithstanding. Concern regarding football’s impact on academic values and the ability of schools to meet their educational mission has been growing steadily over the past several decades.

With a growing body of research confirming that participating in music actually energizes and strengthens the brain and brain function, while involvement in football can damage brain function, what are education and community leaders to do?

In the end, this is about community values as reflected through our educational institutions. Should we be investing so much time, energy, emotion and money in a violent sport that destroys brain cells? Or, does it make more sense, not only from an educational but a public health standpoint, to invest in music, which strengthens and develops brain cells and enhances brain function? Is our collective, community goal to develop brains or “scramble” them?

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, a good place to start that conversation would be to observe scans of the brain on football versus the brain on music.

Revisiting “Sports: The All-American Addiction”

In 2002, I published a book titled “Sports: The All-American Addition”. The basic premise was that organized sport in America had evolved to a point where it’s overall impact on our schools, universities and society has become more negative than positive. My analysis focused on five areas: sports’ impact on the values at the center of our civil society, on educational values and institutions, on individual and public health, on school budgets and the economic vitality of a city or region and the notion that sports is a powerful vehicle to promote upward mobility. 

I recently re-read the book and was struck by two things. 

First, my analysis, narratives and arguments have held up pretty well. For example, sports glorification of violence and win at all cost culture continues to coarsen fundamental tenets of our civil society and that the glorification of athletic accomplishment still too often comes at the expense of academic excellence and educational achievement. Further, organized sports’ impact on individual and public health is not as positive as many believe particularly when increasing amounts of money, energy and emotion is heaped upon the very few, elite athletes while everyone else is pushed to the sidelines to watch, in this one of the most obese nations on the planet. As for economics, it remains true that pro sports teams and municipally funded stadiums are not the “economic drivers” that they are often played up to be. Finally, while the on the field gains for minority athletes have certainly been significant, those same gains, for the most part, still have not materialized in the coaching staffs, front offices and board rooms of college and professional teams. 

While I was amused that “The All-American Addiction” has held up pretty well, it was somewhat disconcerting that many of the issues and concerns identified persist.  Could it be that we really haven’t made much progress in addressing these issues over the past 15 years? 

But then something quite stunning became apparent.  Throughout the entire book, the issue of the link between football and brain trauma was not mentioned. 

Not once!

I consider myself an astute observer of trends in athletics so I don’t think this was an omission. Rather, in 2002, the link between football and CTE, concussions and brain trauma was simply not on anyone’s radar screen.

It goes to show you just how much things can change in 15 years. 

The relatively recent findings regarding this link will be the most significant and influential development in the history of the game of football and its place in our educational system and society. And we’ve just scratched the surface regarding research efforts and dialogue regarding that impact. As a result, there seems to be a growing realization that the game, both from a physical and cultural sense, has got to change. And by many indications, we are beginning to do something about it from efforts to make the game safer to making it “okay” for a parent or a kid to be able to opt out of playing the game. These are all positive developments. 

So maybe we have made some progress. The question is whether we can continue on that path over the next fifteen years. 

While there is no telling what football’s impact and influence on American culture will be in 2030, if past is prologue, my guess is that it will be significantly different than it is today.


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