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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Concussions, Colin Kaepernick and the 21st Century Football Player

Concussions, Colin Kaepernick and the 21st Century Football Player

What exactly does having a higher percentage of black athletes on campus and an increased willingness for them to speak out on matters of race, social justice and athlete rights mean for college coaches and administrators of the future? While that future impact may be unclear at this point, colleges and university leaders might be well served to pay more attention to...

Evidence Is Clear: Tackle Football Is Too Risky


Evidence Is Clear: Tackle Football Is Too Risky By, John Gerdy  | As seen in

As the son of a high school football coach, a former college athletic administrator and someone who has written extensively on football’s role in our schools and culture, I’ve been around, observed, contemplated and researched the game for more than 50 years. Naturally, I was very interested in seeing “Concussion,” the recently released movie starring Will Smith.

Smith portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered clear evidence that professional football players were susceptible to a progressive degenerative brain disease — chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), caused by repetitive blows to the head — and chronicles his efforts to alert the NFL and the rest of the world regarding that link.

Given my deep familiarity with the subject, the movie didn’t shed much new light on the details of football and brain damage. One notable exception however, had more to do with how to explain the link. In attempting to illustrate the connection, Dr. Omalu used as an example how a woodpecker pounds its head repeatedly against hard surfaces, yet does not damage its brain. That is because nature provided what amounts to a natural “shock absorber” in the form of its tongue, which wraps around its brain upon each impact. Humans do not have any equivalent shock absorber, prompting Omalu to declare in no uncertain terms that man was not made to play football.

That statement crystallizes the debate over whether to allow children to participate in football or for junior high and high schools to continue to sponsor it.

This is really about anatomy and the fact that you can’t fool Mother Nature. Our brains, the organ that makes us human, are simply not designed for football. And no matter how hard many well-meaning people are attempting to make football “suitably safe,” the fact is the forces of nature and anatomy will prevail.

While the football industrial complex’s public relations machine is running full throttle in its effort to convince parents that advancements in equipment, diagnosis, testing, protocol and tackling techniques have made the game safe, the cold, hard truth is that these claims are being made with little concrete, scientific evidence to back them up. Even on the most basic of issues, there is widespread disagreement, an example being how long a victim of a concussion should be held out of action. Is it a week? Two weeks? A month? A season? We simply do not know.

Further, all of the attention being placed on concussions is somewhat misguided. Unquestionably, concussions are extremely damaging to the brain. However, the larger issue is the brain damage sustained by repeated subconcussive blows to the head. Subconcussive blows clearly rattle the brain, thus causing cumulative trauma and damage, but not to the extent where the negative impact is immediately and outwardly noticed.

It’s brain death by a million cuts.

In other words, your child could be slowly, methodically damaging his brain without showing any immediate signs of doing so.

Until it is too late.

In short, while we have little idea of the effectiveness of various treatments and safety measures, what is absolutely not in doubt is that playing tackle football is damaging to the brain. That is indisputable. The only question is the extent of the damage.

So here’s the question: Why are so many people fighting so hard to deny the science and promote suspect and unproven safety improvements to continue to justify allowing children to play what is clearly a brutal sport that has been proven to cause brain damage?

In deciding to allow a child to participate, parents face a balancing act deciding whether the dangers outweigh the potential benefits of participation. That is difficult. But there are many other sports (including flag football) and activities, such as band and theater, that instill character traits such as discipline, teamwork skills and personal responsibility. Tackle football does not have the market cornered on teaching those lessons and skills.

Meanwhile, we have age limits and laws designed to protect children from a host of activities that have been proven to be dangerous to them, including smoking and alcohol consumption. Workplace safety laws, for instance, prohibit minors from operating certain kinds of equipment.

So why is football not prohibited for children?

Just because your child wants to play at the age of 12 or 14 does not mean you have to let him. What would you say, for example, if your child came to you at that age and stated, “I’d like to begin smoking cigarettes and dropping acid”? With such certainty regarding the link between football and brain damage and such uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of safety measures and treatment, why take the chance?

Ultimately, this is about anatomy, child safety and parental responsibility.

I’d strongly suggest that every parent with a child playing football or interested in playing football see the movie “Concussion.” And afterward, look in the mirror and ask yourself. “Was my child made to play football?”