In defense of football

I don’t write to defend domestic violence, drug abuse, denigration of women, or the many other ways in which professional football players misbehave. I don’t write to defend what I consider to be the unjust withholding of money from college players. And I don’t write to defend lack of transparency and not paying for the health needs of players injured while playing.

I do write to defend the game of football, as it was played yesterday in a middle school game in Durham, N.C. I loved playing middle school and high school football, and I now have the privilege of being a volunteer assistant coach with my son’s team, who won the game 14-12. The other team easily could have won and both played well and hard. No parents misbehaved. The refs did a good job. And no one got seriously hurt.

I realize that none of the good outcomes listed above was inevitable.And there are long term worries about head injuries in football, and the finding of a JAMA study in May, 2014 is the most worrying that I have seen–that exposure to football (years playing among college players) is associated with cognitive impairment independent of head injury. If that finding holds up, then it really could be a game changer.

Several people have asked me how I could let my 14 year old son play football given the risks. The simplest answer is that there are obvious risks of playing. However, the counter factual of him not playing football also carries risks, just of a different type. For example, he tends to do better in school during football season. The motivation of “I have to do my work because if my teachers don’t sign off I can’t play and it will hurt my team” is a better school motivator for him than anything else I have found as a dad.

There are also some benefits of football that may not be clear from  afar. My son’s football team is far more integrated racially and on an income basis than is our church or neighborhood. It is good for kids to learn that they can work together toward common goals with people who are different. And football is the consummate team game. Players have to depend upon one another. On one play yesterday that was set up perfectly, one kid missed a block. 10 guys did their job and 1 did not and the play failed terribly. This is a strong life lesson of inter-dependence and also accountability (the film doesn’t lie). Finally, some of the most practical examples of redemption I have experienced have come via football.  I’ll tell you just one.

There is a kid who last year could not run 1 lap around the track because he was so out of shape. He had lots of anger issues and couldn’t be trusted to keep his head in games. This year, he ran extra after practice the first few weeks to try and get in better shape. His improvement in fitness in 1 year is hard to imagine. Yesterday, he played both offense and defense and almost never came out of the game, and I watched him help a younger kid get in the correct position on a few plays. He did not correct with a harsh anger, but as a leader who knew it was in everyone’s best interest for him to help the other kid understand.

None of these good outcomes is inevitable. However, they are possible if football is done in the correct way.

cross posted at freeforall

Author: Don Taylor

Don Taylor is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, where his teaching and research focuses on health policy, with a focus on Medicare generally, and on hospice and palliative care, specifically. He increasingly works at the intersection of health policy and the federal budget. Past research topics have included health workforce and the economics of smoking. He began blogging in June 2009 and wrote columns on health reform for the Raleigh, (N.C.) News and Observer. He blogged at The Incidental Economist from March 2011 to March 2012. He is the author of a book, Balancing the Budget is a Progressive Priority that will be published by Springer in May 2012.

7 thoughts on “In defense of football”

  1. But are these benefits unique to football? Could they be obtained from playing any team sport, one that does not carry the same unavoidable inherent risks?

    1. A lot of that will depend upon the kid. They don't necessarily get engaged with all sports equally and there are likely some who wouldn't stick with any other sport.

    2. That is my thinking as well. I think the title is imprecise; something like, "Why football is good for my son" would be closer to the mark, and on those terms it is rather persuasive. Nearly all of the benefits described could occur in a different sport, and many of them in a non-sports activity as well. All sports have there risks, but American football is unquestionably more dangerous than most. Also some of the benefits here described here arise, as noted, the specific context of this community and would be different somewhere else.

      1. I don't think its so clear that American football is "unquestionably" more dangerous than most other sports. I seem to recall a small bit of research conducted on the various varsity athletic programs at Northwestern University that found a higher rate of concussions and other head trauma in several other sports (and I vaguely recall that women's soccer had the highest head injury rates, though I'm going from memory).

        A lot of the attention paid to football is to the case of the so-called "bone crushing hits" which always whip up the crowd but that often result in injury. And these are indeed a dangerous occurrance – though to the knees and shoulders as often as to the head. But the long term head trauma risk from football is probably more due to repeated low-level contact (i.e. the kind of blocking-related contact that probably 7 or 8 players out of the 11 on either side of the field engage in on almost every play). And this level of contact is not that different from the contact that basketball or soccer players are exposed to, especially when you factor in the fact that soccer typically and basketball almost always involves a much longer season than does football.

        Yes, the rate of long term brain injury from NFL football is very high. But NFL players line up against counterparts who are among the biggest, fastest, most powerful athletes in the world, and often do so well into their 30s (playing a season that is significantly longer than a college football season and twice as long as a typical high school football season). That's simply not the experience of kids playing football in high school. Quantity of contact matters – a lot. Limit contact in practice to one or two days a week and the risks from high school football would plummet.

  2. There's a head injury scandal brewing in soccer too. In principle soccer is not supposed to be a body-contact sport, and I don't suppose you would find in school games the head clashes when attacker and defender jump for the same ball. On the other hand amateurs will have worse technique in heading the ball.

    1. I agree. Not only would I favor banning heading the ball but it seems to me that the game has become too physical. I remember a time when football wasn't a contact sport.

  3. It's brain damage which causes football to be so dangerous. I do find the game ridiculous, but the brain damage is that of the armchair athletes who want blood.

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