Thursday, February 11, 2016

Red Flags for Football


The year 2014 saw NCAA sanctions against Penn State's football program—a substantial $60 million, a four-year postseason ban for the football team, a scholarship reduction from 25 to 15 for four years, a five-year probation for all Penn State sports, and the vacating of all football wins from 1998 through 2011. Those sanctions are a second big hit against youth football as we've known it. The first was an accumulation of research showing that the full contact game damages players' brains. It's time for parents, schools and coaches to stop damaging boys with hugely expensive, brain-damaging football like the pros play, and turn to flag football.

Let's not for a moment forget that money was the reason Jerry Sandusky had to be protected despite a long history of molesting kids in the Penn State youth football program. Football was too big an investment and too big a cash cow for Joe Paterno to let sexual assault on children trip it up.

And what about brain damage? At Penn State, Paterno notably put an emphasis on his athletes being decent students. Where does brain damage fit in this picture? It's one thing for men—professionals—to decide they're willing to sacrifice their futures for good—no, great money in the present tense. But should kids under the age of majority be allowed that choice? What about teenagers, whose brains, we now know, undergo major changes on the passage toward adulthood? And does anyone really think 10-year-olds should be exposed to the risks of brain damage and later depression, dementia and suicide?

Let's consider what would become of football if it were a non-contact sport—at  least through high school. Kids—both boys and girls—would learn the basic rules, as boys do now. They would learn teamwork, leadership, sportsmanship, just as boys do now. They would focus on agility, conditioning and strategy, even more than they do now. It might not be as big an attraction as it is now—less money invested, less incentive for cover-ups. On a par with soccer or lacrosse maybe.

No doubt professional football—full-contact football—would  feel the effects of such changes. Would there be less emphasis in the pro game on bigger and bigger men hitting harder, hitting to injure, and pay-to-injure bounty schemes? And if so, wouldn't that be a good thing? Would young players, coming out of college with fewer years of brain-jarring hits, play smarter and better for having years of more agility, conditioning and strategy training and fewer head and joint injuries? And, without the money incentives to protect winning coaches no matter what else they do, might some great players stay in the game through high school and college because they haven't been molested by a coach?

Protecting kids—a beginning, not an end.

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