Can the NFL Recover Its Own Fumble?

Can the NFL Recover Its Own Fumble?

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.

His campaign slogan? A conga in every home!

originally published on LNP on April 7th


Today, I am announcing my candidacy for president of the United States of America. If a former reality TV personality can become president of the United States, why not me?


I did not come to this decision without deep thought and much research. My first step was to find an example of a presidential campaign and slogan that every American, regardless of race, creed or socio-economic status, could agree upon and revise it to apply to today’s world.

Herbert Hoover's 1928 campaign slogan offers an excellent example:

“A chicken in every pot.”

While Hoover’s presidency is regarded by many as a disaster (it’s widely agreed that his economic policies deepened the effects of the Great Depression), it’s hard to argue that he didn’t have a great campaign slogan. (A brief historical side note:  Hoover’s slogan was actually, “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” But with the rise of ride services such as Uber and Lyft and driverless cars soon to be taking over the roads, the car part doesn’t apply today.)

My platform’s central planks are education, health care, economic development, gun control, investment in research and development, strengthening the family, support of activities that will unify our nation and improving international relations.

So with a humble heart and great respect for the American people, I offer my campaign slogan and central policy initiative.

“A conga in every home!”

What better way to address the issues of education, health care, economic development, gun control, investment in research and development, family values and a deeply divided nation and world than bringing music into every home?

This is why I believe my platform is good for America:

Education: The research is clear that involvement in music education boosts academic performance, increases test scores and improves math, reading, language and logic skills and outcomes. Research also tells us that implementing an integrated arts curriculum has a positive impact on teachers’ attitudes and school climate. The result is that students benefit because happier teachers are better teachers and a more positive school environment is a more effective learning environment.

Health care: Seemingly every day we read about doctors using music in new, creative ways to address depression, manage pain, and slow or mitigate the effects of conditions such as dementia. Health care professionals are only beginning to scratch the surface in applying the healing powers of music to drive positive health benefits.

Economic impact: Research tells us that strategic investment in arts and culture initiatives can generate significant economic benefits for cities of all sizes. Lancaster is a prime example of that impact.

Gun control: Simply stated, it’s much better for people to have instruments in their hands than guns.

Investment in research and development: In this fast-paced, integrated global economy and world community, the challenges we face, whether related to the environment, education, health care or global politics, are becoming more complex. Effectively addressing these increasingly complex issues will require the development of a corresponding increase in the creativity of our populace so they can develop creative solutions to these problems. And the most effective tool in our educational and community arsenal to teach creativity and thinking outside the box is music.

Strengthening the family: What could possibly be a better way to bring families closer than sitting around a conga drum playing music and singing songs? Sharing musical experiences is a tremendous way to improve communication and promote love and understanding among people.

Unifying our nation: We must invest in things that can bring our deeply divided nation together. As the universal language, music has the unparalleled power to bring people of all backgrounds together.

Strengthening international relations: Finally, not only can music strengthen our families here at home, it also can serve as a vital tool to enhance international relations. Music's potential to foster understanding and build bridges between disparate cultures and nations is enormous. Thus, my administration will work to expand the “A Conga in Every Home” initiative to homes throughout the world.

These policies will provide a solid blueprint for the future of America.

I hope you will join me in this journey to the White House in 2020. Together, we will put a conga in every home.

Now get out there and knock on some doors and spread the word!

I am John Gerdy, and I approved this message.

Music Education and Community Economic Development

While the majority of public school program and funding decisions are dictated by federal and state mandates the area in which local education and community leaders have enormous influence and decision making power is with extracurricular activities, such as sports, music and the arts. You can get a fairly good idea of what a local community values by examining how they allocate resources and what types of extracurricular activities are sponsored and emphasized in their schools.

The local public school environment and the values that are embraced and projected within that environment molds and influences the attitudes, beliefs and values of children, teachers, parents and general citizens of the community. What is taught and emphasized in schools influence and impact the culture and values of the community at large.  Not only is that influence felt today, but many of those children eventually graduate and settle in the same community, bringing those attitudes and values to bear on the community for years to come. In other words, the values, priorities and culture of the local high school as reflected through the types of programs emphasized have a long lasting impact on the general values and culture of the community in which it is located. 

One area in particular where programming can impact a community relates to economic development.  Social scientist Richard Florida has conducted extensive research on the impact of arts and culture on economic development. In his groundbreaking work, The Rise of the Creative Class, he indentifies the emerging class of  “creative professionals in business and finance, law, health care and related fields. These people engage in complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgment and requires high levels of education or human capital. In addition, all members of the Creative Class-whether they are artists or engineers, musicians or computer scientists, writers or entrepreneurs-share a common creative ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference and merit. For the members of the Creative Class, every aspect and every manifestation of creativity-technological, cultural and economic-is interlinked and inseparable.

The Creative Class is the norm-setting class of our time. But its norms are very different: Individuality, self-expression and openness to difference are favored over the homogeneity conformity and “fitting in” that defined the organizational age.” (Florida, 2002, pp. 8,9)

According to Florida, this Creative Class can have a profound impact on economic development and a city or region’s economic vitality. Members of the Creative Class are precisely the types of people civic leaders should work to attract to their communities to live, work and raise their families. Or, as summarized in an article that appeared in Economic Development Quarterly titled “Arts and Crafts: Critical to Economic Development”:
               "Because of their knowledge-based jobs, Florida asserts that members of the creative class tend to contribute directly to the growth of a thriving economy. Equally important, members of the creative class tend to prefer those jobs in geographical locations with high levels of culture and diversity. Florida thus argues that regions that support the arts will attract and retain the creative class and consequently enjoy higher levels of economic prosperity.” (Lemore, et al., 2013, p. 222)

It may seem like a reach to consider economic development of the local economy as a factor in determining how to invest a high school’s extracurricular resources, but what is emphasized at the high school level is absorbed by students who eventually graduate and become residents of the town.  What students are exposed to and learn impacts what they will later value as community investments. It’s hard to imagine that someone who was not exposed to a quality music and arts curriculum as a student will value music and the arts as a community investment as an adult.

Further, according to Florida, members of the Creative Class tend to be more successful and engaged in the community.  They are precisely the type of people a city, town or region wants to attract to their area to live, work and raise their children. The ability for a city, town or region to attract such people is becoming increasingly important as the Creative Class is composed of citizens who are more likely to be community “movers and shakers.”  

The challenge for communities comes from the fact that members of the Creative Class have more freedom to choose where they want to live. Such freedom results from improvements in transportation and communication (Internet, video conferencing, Skype, etc.). In the past, when a company moved to a different city or state, all employees were required to pick up and move with the company to the new location. Today, companies are much more willing to offer flexibility to valuable “creative” employees to remain with the company while they live in another location. Just as the Creative Class includes the types of employees that companies value and want to keep, they are also the type of people a city, town or region should want to have in their community as citizens.

Thus, the question becomes: What do communities have to offer as resources and values that will appeal to members of the Creative Class? According to Florida, a major, if not the major, community value or feature, is a creative, vibrant, arts-oriented culture. And one important component of such a vibrant arts culture is the type of commitment the community makes to the arts in the schools. Schools are often a major decision influencer for people who are considering where to live, work and raise their families and members of the Creative Class in particular, are very interested in the emphasis the local school district places on music and the arts.

Or, stated differently, creative people want to work with people and live in communities that value creativity. And because music and the arts are the most powerful tool in our educational and community arsenal to teach creativity, it is imperative that educational and community leaders consider that impact when allocating educational resources.

Inasmuch as creativity is the currency of the future and a major key to driving a vibrant local economy decisions regarding how a school invests in extracurricular activities such as music, theater and visual arts is immensely important as those decisions and priorities have both an immediate educational impact on the students who participate in them, but also a long-term community economic development impact beyond the school walls. 

High School Football: The Folly of Trying to Sustain the Unsustainable

There were two recent items in the media regarding high school tackle football that, taken together, provide a strong hint of the future of the sport in our schools.

The first was a report that a three-judge panel of Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court rejected an attempt by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) to have a suit against it tossed out. The suit demanded extensive steps to limit the harm from concussions among high school and junior high athletes.

The second was a report from Oklahoma Watch outlining how high school athletes in that state are sustaining hundreds of concussions and how the high schools are woefully understaffed with athletic trainers and licensed medical professionals trained to identify, treat and prevent brain trauma in athletes.

Taken together, these two developments point to the folly of attempting to sustain an activity that is becoming increasingly unsustainable by the day. While many will lament this reality, if one is willing to approach it in an open and honest way, it could provide an opportunity to create a blueprint for the future of high school sports in America.

There are several trends regarding the sport as well as the challenges facing our secondary school system that will make the sponsorship of tackle football increasingly problematic. The first is the mounting evidence of the link between participation in football and damage to the brain. Seemingly every day there is a new study confirming the harmful outcomes of participation in football. This trend is not likely to abate anytime soon.

In response to this alarming trend, football advocates point to various safety measures such as improved equipment, increased medical oversight and staffing and improved concussion testing and protocol. While these efforts are commendable, they are measures that require significantly more costs for an already very expensive sport. Another example of an expense that will rise dramatically relates to risk management and the cost of liability insurance. As a result, educational leaders will be asked to evaluate the supposed benefits of football against the very real risk of their students suffering debilitating injuries to their brains. Many of them will come to the conclusion that the risk is simply too great.

And if these troubling trends are not enough, they are playing out against an environment of increasing academic expectations and tightening school budgets. In such an environment, it will be more difficult for an educational institution to justify allocating additional resources for an activity that scrambles brains. Educational institutions are in the business of strengthening brains, not destroying them.

In short, while there may always be communities and school districts that will continue to sponsor tackle football, given these trends and the reality they reveal, with each passing day, it will become increasingly clear that high school football is no longer a sound educational investment. As a result, the sponsorship of football in our secondary and junior high schools will slowly but surely wither on the vine.

If kept safe and in the proper perspective, interscholastic sports can be a powerful supplement to the educational experience of young people. Thus, it is understandable why educational leaders remain reluctant to eliminate any interscholastic sports. But football, due to it’s extremely barbaric nature, is a different animal. But rather than bemoan and resist this reality, the elimination of football presents an opportunity to restructure the role that sports plays in our schools.

Specifically, it is time for educational leaders to begin to seriously consider moving to the European model of school sports. In that model, elite athletes pursue their athletic experience through participation in private club teams. The role of school athletics in the European system is to provide broad based participation opportunities in activities that can be practiced for a lifetime (i.e., the type of programming that has traditionally been provided through physical education classes and intramural and wellness programs). This, as opposed to our current system of highly competitive interscholastic programs that are geared to a small percentage of elite athletes while relegating the vast majority of students to the sidelines to watch. In one of the world’s most obese nations, such an approach simply makes no sense.  

That said, interscholastic sports have become so ingrained within the culture of the school and broader community, that moving directly to the European club system may not be realistic at this point.

Perhaps there is an intermediate step.  The elimination of football provides an opportunity to redirect the resources, energy and emotion currently allocated to football to not only other interscholastic sports such as soccer, basketball, swimming, cross country and baseball (sports that are less physically punishing and that can be practiced for a lifetime) but also to strengthening physical education and intramural programs as well as lifelong wellness activities such as yoga and weight training. Such a shift will clearly result in far better health and fitness outcomes for far more students than the current tackle football centric model.  This might be a viable intermediate step to eventually moving to the European model of scholastic sports and fitness.

In short, it’s time to stop trying to sustain the unsustainable. With each passing day, it is becoming clearer that both from an educational and public health standpoint, the European school and community sports model is far superior to our current football-centric elite athletic system. That being the case, rather than bemoaning the growing negative health and safety trend lines associated with tackle football, education and community leaders should seek to leverage those developments to re-imagine and restructure how schools can more effectively utilize sports and fitness activities for more positive community health outcomes.

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.

Participation Trophies for All and the Ruination of Our Youth? Chill Out!

We’ve all witnessed those youth sport ceremonies where every participant receives a trophy. While most consider them to be a fairly harmless way to offer a child some encouragement and provide a sense of accomplishment, there are a considerable number of critics who deride the practice. They argue that recognizing children for mere participation encourages mediocrity and does little to promote excellence. According to the most fervent of those critics, such practices are leading to the creation of a generation of entitled, lazy children.

We all like to consider ourselves “competitors” and “winners”. As adults, we have a propensity to look down our noses at how “easy” younger generations have it. “These kids are so spoiled”, we claim while reminiscing about our hardscrabble lives and sports experiences.  That “I’m a winner” narrative parallels the narrative of American “exceptionalism”. And the notion that sports is a vehicle to instill the drive for excellence in participants by emphasizing and rewarding winning above all else is an extension of that narrative.

But the issue of recognizing young athletes for participation is far more nuanced.

As a lifelong participant and intense observer of the role and influence of sport in our culture, it has become clear to me that the relative value and emphasis on the importance of winning does, and should, vary depending upon the level of play. Yes, winning is important but it is a fluid concept, one that ebbs and flows throughout an athlete’s life. The purpose and value of participation in sports is influenced by the push and pull of two seemingly incongruent forces and concepts. This tension is best described as the process (education and personal development) versus the end result (winning).

Youth sports, particularly at the pee-wee level, should be about participation and having fun. Winning at that level is meaningless. The purpose of youth sport is to create a child-centered focus and environment where the kids get exercise, acquire some skills and above all, have fun. The goal should be to make it as enjoyable and accessible as possible so that when the season ends, the child will have had a positive and nurturing enough experience to want to play the sport again in the future. And if receiving a participation trophy or certificate at the end of the season helps contribute to that goal, then provide one. The fact is, receiving such recognition at age 5, 6, 7, or 8 is not going to warp their personalities for a lifetime.

If we truly believe in sports’ value as an educational and character building activity – one that teaches lessons in discipline, teamwork and, yes, the importance of striving for excellence and winning – we must acknowledge that the only way an athlete will be able to eventually learn these skills and character traits will be by continuing to play the sport on an ongoing basis. That being the case, why make pee-wee league sports about winning rather than participation and having fun? The idea at the pee-wee league is to engage them with the sport and begin to nurture in them a love of that sport in a way that lasts a lifetime. And if providing a kid with a participation trophy contributes to that child wanting to continue to play the sport in the future, so be it.

Without question organized sport can be a valuable tool to teach the importance of striving for excellence through hard work and dedication. But clearly, when around 70 % of kids quit sports by age thirteen (National Alliance for Youth Sports), with a major reason being that they are no longer having fun, serious consideration must be given to the relationship between emphasis on winning and making pee-wee sports about participation and fun. If we want to instill in kids the importance of developing a drive and desire to win it should be emphasized at an age appropriate time.

In short, what’s the hurry to replace, at such an early age, the joy and innocence of a child participating for the mere fun of participating with the adult driven concept of winning being the central purpose of sport? As an athlete rises through the system to the junior high and high school levels, there will be plenty of time to increase the emphasis on, and rewarding of, winning. But if we destroy their love of sport by over emphasizing the importance of winning versus participating and having fun to a point where they quit by age 13, there is no chance of ever instilling in them the lessons related to striving to win because they will no longer be on the fields and courts to learn them.

That said however, winning, even at the high school level, should never overshadow the purpose of sport sponsored by an educational institution. Even with an increased emphasis on winning the fundamental purpose of sport sponsored by an educational institution remains, education. It is the “educational value” of participation in sports that is the primary justification for it being sponsored by an educational institution. So yes, increased emphasis on winning is more appropriate at the high school level provided the importance of the end result (winning) does not overshadow the value of the process (education).

As the athlete moves to the college level, the pressure to win becomes greater. Again, while there is nothing inherently wrong with that, at it’s core, the athletic experience, even at the college level, must be first and foremost about education. Even at this next level of competition, the fact that it continues to be justified based on its educational benefits for participants requires that the balance between the emphasis being placed on winning versus using athletics as a tool to educate and instill positive character traits in participants remains balanced and in the proper perspective.

Once the athlete reaches the professional level, all bets are off. As a professional athlete, everyone knows the score. Pro sports are a business. And the business is winning and generating money.

I spent two years as the youth program director at a YMCA where I was responsible for running several youth sports leagues. One of the more amusing experiences relating to those leagues was regularly being asked by youngsters immediately after a game ended, “Who won?” 
Generally, I’d reply, “I don’t know.” Invariably, they’d consider that for a moment, shrug their shoulders and respond “Okay”. More often than not, they’d then turn to their parents to ask where they were going for ice cream. At such a young age, kids really don’t care about winning as long as they are having fun playing the game. And that is just fine because pee-wee sports are not about us adults and our values. They are about the kids and their wants and needs. 

While it might sound trite to some, the fact is, there is a lot of truth and wisdom in the age-old sports saying, “It is not whether you win or lose, but how (and whether) you play the game.” So for those who think the world is coming to an end because we are awarding pee-wee league athletes participation trophies, it’s time to chill out and appreciate the fact that when it comes to pee-wee sports, the kids just want to play and have fun. While providing some sort of recognition of their participation is certainly not necessary, it clearly won’t result in the end of Western civilization as we know it.