Out of Left Field: Paths to nonviolence on the football field

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During the last years of his life, Robert F. Kennedy issued clarion calls for peace, justice, equality, and nonviolence. He urged:

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the way of the world.”

My previous column called for the abolition of tackle football.  

That process is underway in schools, but it will be harder to achieve in the big money and TV arenas of colleges and pros.  

It may seem like a small matter to address football at a time when terrorism and wars are immediately destructive.  

But, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., injustice and violence anywhere risk expansion everywhere. He said that we all have the moral responsibility to act where we have power.

Dr. King increasingly emphasized the importance of thinking globally, and looking beyond one’s own nationality to identify with humanity as a whole.   

Central to his deep commitments, he shared, with Robert Kennedy, the belief that nonviolence was more than a tactic – it had to be a way of life.

“The savageness of man” (and some women) is manifested in too many ways.  

Focusing on the abolition of tackle football may seem a small step for humankind, but it is a step in a direction that can create ripple effects for more positive developments.

Many people associated with tackle football sincerely seek rules and equipment that prevent or, at least, minimize injuries.  

Sad to say, those objectives have been abject failures.  The evidence increasingly mounts that people are seriously injured and die from football violence. 

During the past week, an autopsy report on Giants star Frank Gifford showed that he was among the 96 percent of NFL tested players, whose brains were damaged, producing chronic traumatic encephalopathy — CTE. I have heard young men and women on Long Island (who are attentive enough to rising football barbarism), comment that some NFL football players committed suicide by shooting themselves in the heart so their brains would be available for autopsy death studies.  

The movie “Concussion” opens on Dec. 25; expect ripple effects.

Is it rational for any of us, in the 21st century, to endorse or accept tackle football where individuals are “crunched” (quarterback Andrew Luck’s lacerated kidney), and where the hitting causes so much immediate and long-term damage?  The physical violence experienced by players on the field would be considered crimes of assault and battery if they occurred on the streets (and, some suggest, even manslaughter). 

The violence of football is not a new story, but the mounting evidence of the destructiveness of the activity is leading to a tipping point for abolition.

Long Islander, Theodore Roosevelt, came close to calling for the end of tackle football in 1905 when he was President of the United States.  

The story of that critical year is related by John J. Miller’s “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football.”

TR loved football (although he never played himself), and he celebrated boxing and other manly endeavors. 

Now is also the time to address the violence in other sports.  

Do you want your sons or daughters to be lacrosse goalies with scant protection as hard missiles are hurled at them 80 or 90 miles an hour? 

Should soccer “headers,” be mounting concerns? The goal of boxing is explicitly to render an opponent unconscious.  

And how do you feel about gender equity in sports violence where UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) superstar, Ronda Rousey, was knocked out by a kick to the head.      

President Roosevelt was a complex man, but, to his credit, he would not ignore the destructive violence of football.  He called for a white house forum of college presidents and coaches to determine whether, or how, football should proceed.

1905 was “the critical year” for football.  

According to the Washington Post, at least 18 players died that year, and at least 45 had died since 1900.  

Reporting on President Roosevelt’s initiative on October 15, 1905, the Post concluded: “Nearly every death may be traced to ‘unnecessary roughness’ . . . so as to cause internal injuries or concussions of the brain, which sooner or later ended life.”

Through TR’s initiatives, and involvements of college leaders and coaches, changes were adopted to make the game less brutal. 

For the 1906 season, the head coach of the football team at Swarthmore (long a marvelous academic bastion) was recruited to write a series of articles, “How to Play Football.”       

Some irony can be noted in that historical development because Swarthmore became one of the first acclaimed colleges to abolish football after the 2000 season and after 122 years of football. 

Clearly, despite good intentions, the early efforts to eliminate brutal violence from football have not succeeded. 

I love the geometrics for creative design of plays in football, and I believe that attraction can be sustained through flag football (although some changes will need to be made in the number of players on the field and the rules of engagement).

The official rules of flag football (often ignored during post Thanksgiving games) prohibit all physical hitting, including blocking.  

But the appeal of speed, athleticism, and dazzling plays can engage fans, as well as those who play the game, and this can be achieved without the savage violence that has too casually become socialized in the U.S.

Among many books that Theodore Roosevelt wrote (without ghost authors) was “The Strenuous Life.”  

It was translated into several languages; the one TR liked best was the Italian Vigor da Vita.

The “macho” TR advised that, while it was valuable for young men to compete and play hard, it was essential to play within the rules.  

Critically significant, TR also advised that young men who had athletic glory without attention to cultural learning and civic engagement would be deficient as members of society.  

Would that the NCAA had these priorities!

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