Perhaps there’s something in football that appeals to us in a primal way; there are plenty of writers who have competently proposed and supported that assertion. That’s probably why I found it so fun as a child. It afforded me great fun and, what I considered, a relatively safe environment to expend my youthful energy. Even in practice, there was something exhilarating about slamming into another kid in full pads, trying to jar the football loose or keep him out of the backfield. One drill, the “Oklahoma” drill, even promoted the actions by allowing us to deliver devastating hits in one-on-one situations. We would stand around and watch these drills happen, cheering in unison at the biggest of collisions.
Concussions happened – some diagnosed, some not – but to us, the fear we had was more likely to come from broken bones than understated brain trauma. A concussion resulted in maybe a couple days off the field, while a fracture, depending on its location, could sit you down for months. That was a precious amount of time in the short seasons we played through as children.
It wasn’t until high school that we started dealing with mandatory baseline tests and post-concussion symptom examinations. Even then, the latter was fairly rudimentary. Multiple times I watched our head trainer ask my potentially concussed teammates to spell out the word “world” in reverse. In my limited knowledge, it seems that using the same word repeatedly around the people most likely to face that test at a later date, is short-sighted. We would often remark at how simple of a test it was and vowed that we would memorize the order of “d-l-r-o-w” to avoid any downtime if we suffered a head injury.
I have my doubts as to whether that memorization plan would have turned up any different results, but it does illustrate just how little we understood or cared about concussions. They weren’t a big deal, and the symptoms were often celebrated. We often bragged about “ringing” a guy’s “bell.” I recall one teammate being lauded for demolishing one opposing player to the point where they had to wake him up with smelling salts. We were probably 12 years old at the time.
What surprises me the most about that stuff, looking back on it, is that it wasn’t something we were necessarily taught. I remember all of the tackling instructions we received were excellent: Keep your eyes up, put your shoulder into the guy’s midsection, and drive him to the ground. There was no explicit instruction to spear a kid or launch yourself at a ball-carrier, but big hits were cool. They gave you bruises or forced other kids to wear casts. It was a mark of pride. But why?
Maybe I have gotten soft. I got cut from the high school football program before my senior year, and I wound up joining the track and field team to throw blunt objects for a couple of springs. It’s been over ten years since I played organized football, so I’m pretty well removed from the whole experience. That might be why I’m so skeptical of football, though.
I read recently that the old Oklahoma drills are being banned by some youth leagues, and there are leagues that are limiting the number of practices where full pads are worn by players. It’s easy to say that these choices are ruining the game of football; I know my immediate reaction to the idea was one of shock. That’s the sport I love. Why are they trying to ruin it?
But then I struggle on Saturdays and Sundays when I watch NCAA and NFL games because I know just a sliver of what those guys are going through to live out the dreams of other people. Football is a brutal, taxing, and, not nearly as often, rewarding sport. Watching a guy like Wes Welker come back to the game after the number of concussions he has faced is sobering. Seeing fan-favorites like Larry Fitzgerald and LeVeon Bell lie motionless on the turf with their arms helplessly outstretched makes me cringe, and that’s before I even have time to consider that I’m contributing to that machine.
And while the NFL (sort of) admits that it makes money off of its players, the NCAA pretends that it doesn’t. It hides behind its precious “student-athlete” misnomer, developing commercials that feature the brilliant minds partaking in sports that are supported by the mortgaged futures of college football players. Articles, books, and even documentary films have been made to call the NCAA’s very existence into question. Despite those warnings, everyone buys into The System, and just like the NFL, it seems it’s too enormous to fail.
Many Saturdays each fall, I trek over to Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium to support their “student-athletes.” For now, I’m actually comfortable calling them that – Lehigh offers top-flight academics for its students, and their coaching staff has no choice but to be realistic about their players’ chances at turning professional – but I worry that the day may come where I no longer feel that way. When does it stop being OK to ask teenagers to give up their bodies in support of their colleges, or grown men to sacrifice their brains to pad the already-full pockets of other grown men?
I wish I had an answer. Tonight, I realized that any solution will be more complicated than I could imagine. I want to believe that changing the way children tackle will lead to change, but as I already mentioned, nobody taught us to tackle in the manner that we now see NFL players getting fined and suspended for. I imagine making adjustments to the rules of the game, whether it’s removing kickoffs and punts or limiting player movement, would have a positive impact. But what about all the impressive collisions at the line of scrimmage? What about the linemen that constantly take hits to the head just in the natural course of blocking?
The hits we see on gameday are just a fraction of what those guys are experiencing during two-a-days and full-pad sessions throughout the season. The hits in practice may not be as bone-jarring as the ones featured every weekend on network television, but they are contributing to the same problems. It might just be easiest to send Roger Goodell and the game of football into outer space and forget the whole thing.
Then I thought of the impact on the youth outside of the well-off suburbs and wealthy private schools. The cultural footprint of the game goes beyond the gridiron. I like to think that football meant a lot to me, but every weekend we see guys whose only real chance to make something of themselves was to succeed at football. Their body types and God-given abilities made them perfect for the game. The stories featured in documentaries like Undefeated and We Could Be King are only possible because of the game of football. Football means a lot more to other people than it means to me. Other activities could take the place of football, but would the kids who need the structure and sense of belonging be drawn to soccer in the same way?
In Allentown, PA, there are two public high schools: William Allen High School and Louis E. Dieruff High. Those two schools have met 59 times on the football field, and not many of those meetings have been under great circumstances. Allen High went 1-9 this season. Its lone victory was its first in three years, and the Canaries haven’t beaten Dieruff since 2011, which was also the last time they scored more than seven points against the Huskies. The last time the game even mattered outside of pride was in 2002, when the Huskies beat Allen 52-20 in an Eastern Conference playoff game (essentially considered a consolation playoff for teams that didn’t make the district playoffs).
There were a few years in the mid-2000s where both teams went into the rivalry game looking for their first win of the season. Coaches have stepped down from their jobs because of how destitute the programs are. I’m willing to put money on most of those kids not wanting to trade the experience of being a part of those football teams, though. The intangibles of being a part of a football team, especially in those high school years, outweigh the dangers for a lot of kids. Football is so firmly ingrained in American culture that, even if you were to take away the SEC, NCAA, or NFL, the sport could never truly be uprooted.
The depth of those roots is what makes football worth saving. As satisfying as jettisoning Goodell to the moon would be, the answer cannot be to simply outlaw football. There may not be another Teddy Roosevelt coming along to save American football from death (or at least stopping death from taking away football), but there have to be changes that can be made to make the game safer, and we ought to be ready to accept them.
I put together the 1500 words above on Tuesday evening. Shortly after hitting “Submit” I was directed to a feature from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on former Steelers wideout Antwaan Randle El. I recommend reading it for yourself, but in it, Randle El mentions recurring memory loss and trouble walking as problems he has dealt with since retiring from the NFL. He asserts that there is nothing that can be done to “fix” football and says he “wouldn’t be surprised if football isn’t around in 20, 25 years.”
I’m not sure if my personal affection for the game I grew up on and still support is blinding me to the issues. Maybe what I wrote above is a desperate attempt to find a reason for the game to exist. Unfortunately, “I loved it as a kid” doesn’t cut it. I apologize for this post being word vomit, but I am honestly lost as to how to look at the sport of football these days. It crushes me to regularly see former players having to go out of their way to explain that the risks are so great that playing may not have been worthwhile. I remain hopeful that positive change can come, but each day I find new reasons to believe it will not.
Seth Kuhns is a 26-year-old writer living in Southeastern Pennsylvania. After several failed solo attempts to display his writing skills online, he invited several friends to create Imperfect Collective. In the Imperfect Collective system, there are two separate yet equally important groups: The contributors who cultivate rhymes, and the editing staff who execute their offenses. These are their stories.