Thrill of Victory

On Obama's comments and football violence: what to do next

Just a week before the Super Bowl, President Obama made headlines regarding his comments regarding the game’s safety. Critics have since opined that perhaps the nation’s leader should be concerned with more pressing matters, and I’ll proceed with no comment there since this isn’t a political blog. However, let’s just say that it shouldn’t surprise us that our nation’s leader, a self-described sports fan, has an opinion on the hottest topic of our nation’s most popular game, and that someone drew it out of him a week before the game’s biggest event of the year.

In case you missed it, Obama recently told The New Republic “I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” adding, “I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.” Certainly, those thoughts reflect the conclusions of a lot of football fans as they ponder how the game will survive through a growing awareness of health risks to its players, not to mention multiple lawsuits that have sprung from them.

As with most topics of this magnitude, battle lines have been drawn on both sides. On one hand, you have the New Hampshire doctor who’s proposed a ban of high school football. Others say that the violence is part of the game and that toning it down will result in an inferior product.

Consider Ravens’ safety Bernard Pollard, one of the game’s fiercest hitters, in the latter camp.

“Thirty years from now, I don’t think it will be in existence. I could be wrong. It’s just my opinion, but I think with the direction things are going, where they (NFL rule-makers) want to lighten up, and they’re throwing flags and everything else, there’s going to come to a point where fans are going to get fed up with it,” Pollard told CBS Sports recently. “Guys are getting fined, and they’re talking about, ‘let’s take away the strike zone,’ and ‘take the pads off’ or ‘take the helmets off.’ It’s going to be a thing where fans aren’t going to watch it anymore.”

I don’t really see a solution in either extreme. Banning football would be a bad idea; it gives kids of all ages some structure and discipline that they sorely need. It provides for college scholarships for people who might not otherwise attend. It’s a $9 billion industry that provides tens of thousands of jobs, not to mention a good bit of family bonding time on Saturdays and Sundays. It has obvious problems in its current form, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

On the other end, football can’t continue this way. While protective gear and concussion awareness are improving with every year, players are getting stronger and faster also, making for more violent collisions.

There’s no ignoring the hundreds of players who are damaged for life as a result of playing football. The bad PR is forcing parents everywhere to evaluate whether they want to expose their kids to that kind of risk. Should I ever have a son, I would as well.

Pollard also inadvertently makes a point in support of the safety-first crowd with his claim that the fans will lose interest. What he never considered was that, should things stay as they are, fans are going to be deprived of seeing a lot of great players at the NFL level.

I can’t count how many great NFL players had careers were cut short due to injury. Only God knows how many more could have had great NFL careers had injuries in high school or college not stopped them from going further. Football is on the verge of losing many more to parents who’ll never let their kids even try the game in its current form.

Look, they’ll never make football a fool-proof game. There will always be freak injuries like Bo Jackson’s that can’t be prevented. Football is going to be a physical came no matter what, and Pollard is right – we wouldn’t like the game if it’s not.

Maybe Pollard’s concern may be more in anticipation over what comes next. There’s talk that kickoffs – they’re the league’s most violent plays – could be eliminated. Counter-intuitive safety measures, such as substituting leather helmets for the current ones or reducing the padding that players wear may be appropriate; supporters like them because they say the current equipment gives a false sense of security and encourages dangerous risk-taking with regards to throwing their bodies around.

All those things may have elements of truth, but I have one big concern: any legislation needs to be fully thought through before it’s passed. The knee-jerk reactions to this crisis has put some poor rules on the book that have led to consequences that weren’t foreseen, such as the new college rule that forces players off the field if they lose their helmets. Instead of insuring player safety, it is instead giving opponents a better opportunity to keep a team’s star player off the field.

I think that the NFL is on the right path with most of its legislation. Pollard and others may gripe about it, but I don’t know of a single person who’s stopped watching football because of that yet. I think that one day, we’ll look upon the parts of the game that have been eliminated – defensive backs torpedoing them into receivers rather than tackling them, and allowing players to play through concussions – as common-sense measures that did nothing to detract from the integrity of the game itself. Twenty years from now, some of those things may seem as out-of-place as having the goalpost at the front of the end zone rather than at the back.

But, I think that when it comes to things that aren’t so obvious, the NFL and other forms of organized football are wise to proceed slowly. Obama is on the right track when it comes to the spirit of the law, but as any experienced politician can also tell you, how the letter of how the law is written may create a worse problem than existed in the beginning.