Football has problems.
Roger Goodell is one of them. He should be humiliated over deflate-gate (which was nothing more than a petulant attempt to exact some authority over his old pal Robert Kraft), and he should be appalled by his league’s lack of a real response to violent aggression toward women from its players. Greg Hardy’s presence in the league screams how the NFL feels about this issue. Concussions? Player safety? Benefits for retired players? In the NFL, what’s old, injured, or concussed is forgotten.
Goodell should resign. But when you make over $40 million per year voluntarily walking away isn’t happening. Owners should remove him. But when revenues are at all-time highs and 10-year forecasts would make you wealthier than many small nations, well, nobody is taking your seat at the table. So we’re stuck.
Still, Roger Goodell is not football’s biggest problem, at least not with respect to head trauma and the future of the sport.
Concussions, CTE, and the bone-rattling, crash-course collisions promoted in NFL highlight videos and watched every Sunday, Monday, and Thursday are also not the problem. The head games crisis threatens to destroy football by cutting the pipeline of willing participants. Parents understand better football’s dangers, participation at youth levels has declined for several years, and soon lawsuits may make the sport uninsurable. Fast-forward a decade and letting your son play football could be taboo, not merely dangerous.
Head trauma, though, is merely a symptom of football’s disease.
No, football’s problem is football. It was when public outrage over the 1905 death of Harold Moore forced Teddy Roosevelt to demand the game change or risk abolishment. And football’s problem was football when Chucky Mullins from Ole Miss smashed into Vanderbilt’s Brad Gaines on October 28, 1989, broke four vertebrae in his neck, shattered his spine, and never walked again. I was seven and had already seen my share of highlights celebrating the blindside smacks that bend a quarterback or the head-on traffic accidents that leave wide receivers to writhe in pain. But until Chucky Mullins hit the turf, the players always got up. Not this time. Tears stormed down my cheeks. Football’s innocence had just died for me.
Football is violent, and this violence seduces us. It embodies something American. It’s masculine, powerful, and challenges its players in ways other sports do not. Football separates men from boys, and begs its heroes to out-sacrifice their opponents. Somewhere in its violence the sport became a romanticized throwback to days when life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness counted. Son, you will play football, and you will be a man. Or so goes the folklore.
Football’s rules will change—and our collective judgment on football’s social worth will continue evolving—but violence will never leave the game. Six-hour two-a-days will persist as players of all ages thump their skulls like Jon Bonham learning the goddamn drums. The sub-concussive trauma caused by the repetitive collisions that accumulate from the moment a child first buckles their chinstrap and enters a tackling drill will endure.
Our lust for football rewards a strike first ask questions later mindset. As fans, news reports of football players involved in violent, physical altercations should not surprise us. Nor should we feign shock when once proud men—who have become prisoners inside their own failing brains—write a note and pull a trigger because it’s their only escape.
Make no mistake, I am not excusing football from its ills due to its inherent violence. Likewise, do not count me among those who either want football banned or who believe an unjustified war exists against the sport.
I was born on opening day of the 1982 NFL season. My dad, a sparsely used running back for the Denver Broncos, used a police escort from the hospital to reach Mile High Stadium in time for kickoff. My book, To Dad, From Kelly, describes the lessons I learned from my NFL-playing father. Many of Dad’s teachings took place on the practice field or as the result of his experiences in a life devoted to football. My second book is a fictional story set inside high school football. Why? Because I believe that under the right circumstances, football is a terrific teacher of life fundamentals: relentless worth ethic, dedication, teamwork, striving toward a common goal. This is not a blind statement. Football, directly and indirectly, helped instill me with these values.
Still, attacks on football are warranted. The sport is cruel and barbaric. Listen to any practice field and hear the questionable message boys receive: “be a man; tough it out; don’t be a girl.” Can we teach young men to question this pumped-up, weight room brand of masculinity and encourage softer skills, such as empathy and vulnerability, that have their roots in emotional intelligence? Should football really be the place where we define for boys what it means to be a man? Or should football—with its lessons in team building, self-sacrifice, and commitment—be used as one of the tools that helps build character. Lead blocking on the field and relinquishing pride to admit fears off it are not mutually exclusive traits.
“Less tough” is the tired phrase many apply to the certain cultural destruction looming if football changes. Kids will be “less tough.” Society will be “less tough.” It is as if to challenge football is to challenge America, our might and our splendor, our strength. That somehow boys taught in their cribs to worship football behind only God and family will live a life not just void of strength but full of weakness. I’ve loved football from the time I could barely fit my slight fingers around a mini-Nerf ball. But the game is neither righteous nor holy, so let’s stop treating it that way.
Will society topple from some inherent weakness if we instruct men from an early age to address feelings through dialogue, resolution, and compromise? Should we not be teaching kids that it is neither manly nor heroic to bottle emotions until they swell and explode upon your shores. Nobody is “less tough” by showing vulnerability. “I need help” is one of the most courageous statements we can make. Football encourages self-reliance, but left unbalanced and without the understanding of when and how to seek assistance from others, such self-reliance becomes detrimental. This is true in sports, business, and friendships.
For our kids, we should encourage healthy discourse before turning them loose on the field while providing a healthy understanding of competition and conflict resolution so the football field does not become the sole outlet for such expression. Increased scrutiny does not constitute a war on football. Instead, it is the necessary evolution for a sport with a history and culture of deceit and irresponsibility.
Football’s systemic violence is at the root of its abuses. Still, I believe that football does teach lessons for life better than other sports and can be an instrumental block in character building.
So what treatments, then, does football need?