What Would Teddy (Roosevelt) Do?


In the early 1900’s football was an exceedingly brutal sport. With little protective gear, players suffered horrible injuries, from wrenched spinal cords to crushed skulls and even death. The Chicago Tribune reported that in 1904 alone, there were 18 football related deaths. Amid growing calls for its abolition, President Teddy Roosevelt entered the fray and urged radical reforms that ultimately saved the sport. History also tells us that Roosevelt hunted elephants.

In 2013, there were “only” eight deaths resulting from brain or neck injury related to football, all in high school. Football advocates will claim that proves that equipment, teaching techniques, playing rules and medical monitoring have improved dramatically since 1904. That’s true, but it is also true that players have gotten bigger, stronger and faster, resulting in significantly more violent hits and collisions with all of that mayhem driven by a win at all cost, entertainment culture and value system. In short, a case can be made that football is more dangerous than ever.

But the physical dangers of football are only a part of the story.

While my intention is not to diminish the tragic deaths of young people at the hands of football, there is another aspect and influence of the game that is becoming exceedingly dangerous. Specifically, it is the detrimental impact our nation’s love affair with elite athletics and, in particular, football has on academic integrity and the educational mission of our entire educational system, from our junior high schools to our colleges and universities.

Let’s be clear on one thing. This is about football. Despite all the talk about athletics in general, football -- with its outsized influence on our culture and our educational system -- is the indisputable driver of the athletics enterprise. While other sports, basketball in particular, struggle with similar ills, football’s shear scope, engrained tradition, enormous entertainment appeal and economic clout make it the “Elephant in the Room” of educational reform.

That’s why they call it “King Football”.

The ways in which our over-emphasis on football undermines our educational system are many. Stories of academic fraud, ethical shortfalls, extravagant expenditures, physical punishment and a blatant disregard of academic values are widespread. Observers and critics of interscholastic and intercollegiate athletics have been documenting this state of affairs for decades.

But make no mistake, the costs of our heavy educational “investment” in football are steep. From mangled bodies and scrambled brains to academic fraud to growing athletic department deficits to the glorifying of athletic feats over academic accomplishment to its obsessive win at all cost culture, all of which severely limit its potential as an educational tool. Yes, football’s entertainment qualities can bring joy, unite a community and teach valuable life lessons, but the fact is, football is not unique in its’ potential and ability to provide these benefits. Other sports and activities, such as music, can provide such advantages and more, without those side effects.

The Search for Truth

One of the most basic tenets of education in America is the search for truth. But finding the truth is often the easy part. The challenge is mustering the courage and community will to go to where the logic, truth and data lead. The fact is, when you add the harm to our educational system to all of the physical carnage, it is clear that football’s impact is far more damaging to our society than what Teddy Roosevelt was faced with in 1904.

Yet, we continue to invest an enormous amount of time, effort, energy, emotion and resources in football. While some may scoff at or refuse to even consider the possibility that the culture of football and the lessons learned through participation in it have lost relevance in today’s world, to do so is foolish. Context matters and the world is changing at a rapid pace. These are community choices. We can choose to reconsider and restructure our community and educational investments or we can simply put our heads in the sand and continue to sponsor activities simply because we have always done so, regardless of whether they remain effective from an educational return on investment perspective.

In short, we need more schools and communities concerned about, committed to and investing in, educational excellence rather than football glory. We must have more pride in National Merit Scholars than all-state running backs.

But it takes leadership, courage and direction.

That’s where Teddy Roosevelt comes in. At least the example he set in 1904.

A Presidential Commission

A bipartisan bill was recently introduced in Congress calling for the formation of a Presidential Commission to study the future of college sports. While such a commission could be helpful, it would represent merely a band-aid on a much larger and infinitely more important cultural and educational problem. Specifically, what role should football play in our culture and how can it be structured in a way that allows for its’ entertainment potential but minimizes its negative impact on our nation’s educational values and system.

If we are going to go to the trouble of creating a Presidential Commission, we might as well have it address the root influence (the football culture) that impacts our entire educational system. Again, football drives the ship and is the “Elephant in the Room”. Yes, we should establish a Presidential Commission. But its’ purpose and focus should be to study the role of football in our entire educational system, not simply our colleges and universities.

What exactly would this commission do? It is not reasonable to expect that it will adopt specific rules, regulations and policies. Rather the purpose would be to draw attention to the issues, create and encourage dialogue and to sketch out a potential new model for football’s role in our educational system in the twenty-first century. We’re talking about a major cultural shift and the first step is to begin to draw attention to the issue in a comprehensive way, something that a Presidential Commission would be uniquely qualified to do.

Fortunately, there have been several developments -- from class action law suits, to new research, to student activism to NCAA restructuring -- that have opened the door for a more open, honest and reasoned discussion regarding the role of football in America. These developments are clearly something that a Presidential Commission could build on.

In the final analysis, the challenges we face in educating our children and maintaining our economic status as a world power are simply too great for our schools systems to continue to invest in an activity that, however entertaining, mangles bodies, scrambles brains and has a consistent tendency to undermine academic values. It is against this backdrop that we must reconsider whether our tremendous educational investment in football continues to be a sound one.

History tells us that Teddy Roosevelt was successful in spurring measures to reform football into a less dangerous game in 1904. But the game’s broad influence has become infinitely more dangerous today. While a Presidential Commission limited to the study of college athletics would be better than nothing, the fact is, this is far bigger than college athletics. King Football’s influence in our educational system and thus, our culture, is enormous. And the fact is, that influence is becoming increasingly negative. We’ve reached a tipping point that requires bigger and bolder thinking and more aggressive action. History also tells us that if Teddy Roosevelt was anything, he was bold and aggressive.

He also hunted elephants.

So while a Presidents Commission on college athletics might help, my guess is that Teddy would be more inclined to think bigger, be bolder and address the “Elephant in the Room” of educational reform in American.