Out of Left Field: Is football going to be our next tobacco?


Long Island’s great president, and lover of athletics, Theodore Roosevelt came close to abolishing football in the early 1900s.

He pushed hard for reforms that made the game less savage — and less lethal.

Now, with a new season launched last weekend, there is a rising tide, not only of critics, but of abolitionists.

Unlike boxing, “ultimate fighting,” and “mixed martial arts,” the violence in football is not supposed to be intentional.

While the goal of play is not to render your opponent unconscious, one might wonder how many football players cross that line of intent.

Still, there is more and more explicit evidence that football is a violent and dangerous sport.

One million high school boys are said to play football; their physical harm can haunt their lives for decades.

Several teens and collegians have already died playing on their teams this year (practices begin early).

The title for this column comes from The New York Times Magazine three years ago. That date may seem to indicate that football is surviving its criticism.

However, folks with longer cultural memories know how long it took to win against the entrenched financial and lobbying power exercised by the tobacco industry.

What does it take to reach a true “tipping point” for significant societal change?

Signs of a rising tide of football criticism and abolitionism are rapidly expanding.

Just last week Hashtag Roundup asked on the Internet, “#IfFootballDidn’tExist.”

A doctor (@Solely_Toya) responded: “I’d probably see a lot less patients with concussions.”

Startling evidence of violence comes from the brain studies of deceased professional players (reported extensively in the media during the past month).

As parents look at this powerful data, how will they respond in guiding their own sons in high school and college, and in terms of professional football aspirations?

One of the great athletes of our era, Lebron James, who himself was a talented football star, has said he will not permit his big, athletic son to play football: “It’s too dangerous.”

For most men, it is not easy to walk away from what has become our nation’s biggest spectator sport and one that was associated with masculinity when they were growing up. I can relate to such ambivalences.

The immigrant community of my youth celebrated football above all else.

Beyond baseball or basketball, the physical dominance by youth from less prominent zip codes over those from elite areas was most dramatically demonstrated on the gridiron, going beyond merely winning.

In my ethnic community, there was never a tennis team.

Guys running only a few yards at a time in white shorts were considered playing a “sissy sport.”

Playing football carries an intensity of preparation that can be compared to getting ready for a staged play performance.

Practices (like rehearsals) are long and repetitive.  Football “reps” are extended exercises in movement (in theater, this is called a different kind of “blocking.”)

Unlike theater, football has real drama. The results are not scripted; they depend on how you execute in real time, based on the effectiveness of your many practices.

Enjoyment of watching any competitive athletic event is the uncertainty of results, particularly if the contest has a game clock, and can still be decided near its end point.

For boys who have played football, there is, indeed, an aesthetic about the game; the various formations and the movements of 22 players along the field are able to be planned more systematically than soccer.

Aren’t these attributes sufficient to support and play the game?

The answer is “No” because the risks are too high.

There is an added benefit for people who are joining this abolitionist movement: more free “time” for” life” enhancement.

More than ever, I am cognizant of Thoreau’s dictum that “the cost of something is the amount of life that has to be expended for it.”

More and more people are making the calculation about what else they can do with added “life” hours.

Like other abolitionists, I no longer watch any football games — either on TV, or in person.  I don’t read stories in print or on line about players’ teams or score results.

When newscasters talk about football, I hit my mute button, or switch channels.

There is one exception to my boycott; I follow stories about other critics of football, especially by football abolitionists.  Their numbers are multiplying.

In my next column, I will elaborate on the expanding football abolitionists and why they have a chance to achieve levels of “tobacco prohibition successes.”

This week a cartoon of East Hampton High School locker room (where football has been cancelled) featured two boys.

One asked: “What’ll we do without football?”

The other responded: “Play a sport that doesn’t cause brain damage.”

Why not consider cricket, the 2nd most popular sport in the world?


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