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.
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?
One of the primary purposes of an educational institution is to instill in students not simply an understanding of specific knowledge (numbers, words or dates), but a lifelong love of learning. Further, it is safe to say that clearly the most effective way to learn the lessons taught through sports or other activities, is actually participating in those activities as opposed to simply observing them. Therefore, when evaluating our investment in school programs and extracurricular activities, consideration should be given to whether that activity is something you can continue to participate in and learn from long after graduation.
The purpose of this essay is to assess the effectiveness of football versus music as it applies to lifelong participation and learning.
Before proceeding, it is important to dispel the notion that team sports are unique in their potential to teach skills and lessons in teamwork and to build character in participants. The fact is there is no difference between the types of lessons learned and character traits obtained through participation in football or other team sports and involvement in a music ensemble or band. Skills such as collaboration, communication, discipline and personal responsibility are learned through all of these activities. That being the case, in tough economic times, when considering educational investment in football versus music programs, education and community leaders must consider additional issues and benefits of these activities, including the issue of whether these activities can be practiced for a lifetime.
Football is a sport where 96 percent of high school players will never again play the game after high school and less than one percent will do so after college. According to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) website, 5.8 percent, or less than one in seventeen of all high school senior boys, play interscholastic football. Of those, approximately, one in fifty, or 1.8 percent, will get drafted by an NFL team. Or, put another way, only eight in 10,000 or approximately 0.08 percent of high school seniors playing interscholastic football will eventually be drafted by an NFL team. (NCAA.org.) Yes, life long lessons are learned during those high school years. But for 96 percent of participants, football’s ability to continue to teach for life ends after their final high school game. Further, none of those participants are women. While there are many sports in which you can participate for your entire life - swimming, golf and tennis - can be played into one’s seventies and eighties, these are not the sports in which we are investing the most resources. That distinction goes to football, an activity where participation for all but the most elite ends at age eighteen.
A few years ago, I found myself trudging on the elliptical machine at my local YMCA alongside a 70 year-old man. He looked in great shape. He told me that he was not training simply to remain in shape. He was training to play baseball in a local over-50 league. And he’s a pitcher! People marveled that he was still playing competitively at age seventy, so much so that he was the subject of a feature story in the local newspaper. His playing at age seventy was quite an accomplishment and certainly noteworthy because he was the lone seventy-year-old in the league. No one came close to him in age.
Contrast this to the number of musicians who are still playing at age seventy, eighty or even ninety. While both music and sports can teach by participation and observation, music’s potential as a life-long educational tool is far more lasting and powerful because the opportunity to participate as opposed to simply observing as a spectator is possible regardless of age.
In short, there are infinitely more sixty, seventy, and eighty-year-olds still playing music together and, in the process, learning from each other, challenging themselves and keeping their minds sharp than there are twenty-five year-olds playing football. Further, an additional benefit of music is that an eighty-year-old bassist or pianist can play on equal footing with an eighteen-year-old guitarist. Not so in competitive sports, and in particular, football. That being the case, from a long-term educational return on investment perspective, music is far superior to football, if for no other reason than the ability to remain actively involved in music never ends.
If participation in an activity, as opposed to simply observing, is a more effective way to learn important lessons and achieve personal growth, we should invest in activities that allow active participation to the greatest extent possible for as long as possible. If music is an activity that one can actively engage in and thus continue to learn from for a lifetime, shouldn’t we be encouraging the development and funding of such programs? Shouldn’t the potential for lifelong participation and learning through music be strongly considered when compared to investment in sports such as football, where the opportunity to continue to actively participate is limited and usually ends with the final high school game?
If so, the answer is indisputable: Music results in a far better and more powerful long-term educational return on investment than football as it applies to the issue of lessons learned and personal growth achieved through participation.
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.
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.