In defense of football

I don’t write to defend domestic violence, drug abuse, denigration of women, or the many other ways in which professional football players misbehave. I don’t write to defend what I consider to be the unjust withholding of money from college players. And I don’t write to defend lack of transparency and not paying for the health needs of players injured while playing.

I do write to defend the game of football, as it was played yesterday in a middle school game in Durham, N.C. I loved playing middle school and high school football, and I now have the privilege of being a volunteer assistant coach with my son’s team, who won the game 14-12. The other team easily could have won and both played well and hard. No parents misbehaved. The refs did a good job. And no one got seriously hurt.

I realize that none of the good outcomes listed above was inevitable.And there are long term worries about head injuries in football, and the finding of a JAMA study in May, 2014 is the most worrying that I have seen–that exposure to football (years playing among college players) is associated with cognitive impairment independent of head injury. If that finding holds up, then it really could be a game changer.

Several people have asked me how I could let my 14 year old son play football given the risks. The simplest answer is that there are obvious risks of playing. However, the counter factual of him not playing football also carries risks, just of a different type. For example, he tends to do better in school during football season. The motivation of “I have to do my work because if my teachers don’t sign off I can’t play and it will hurt my team” is a better school motivator for him than anything else I have found as a dad.

There are also some benefits of football that may not be clear from  afar. My son’s football team is far more integrated racially and on an income basis than is our church or neighborhood. It is good for kids to learn that they can work together toward common goals with people who are different. And football is the consummate team game. Players have to depend upon one another. On one play yesterday that was set up perfectly, one kid missed a block. 10 guys did their job and 1 did not and the play failed terribly. This is a strong life lesson of inter-dependence and also accountability (the film doesn’t lie). Finally, some of the most practical examples of redemption I have experienced have come via football.  I’ll tell you just one.

There is a kid who last year could not run 1 lap around the track because he was so out of shape. He had lots of anger issues and couldn’t be trusted to keep his head in games. This year, he ran extra after practice the first few weeks to try and get in better shape. His improvement in fitness in 1 year is hard to imagine. Yesterday, he played both offense and defense and almost never came out of the game, and I watched him help a younger kid get in the correct position on a few plays. He did not correct with a harsh anger, but as a leader who knew it was in everyone’s best interest for him to help the other kid understand.

None of these good outcomes is inevitable. However, they are possible if football is done in the correct way.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy at Duke University (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute). I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy, and currently serve as Chair of Duke's University Priorities Committee (UPC). My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

3 Responses to In defense of football

  1. Pingback: Last Football Game | freeforall

  2. Pingback: Head Trauma in High School Football Practices | freeforall

  3. EagleJoe says:

    None of those outcomes are dependent on football. They could be achieved through other means that don’t carry the brain injury risks. Fitness, discipline, diversity, etc.. can all be experienced in much safer settings.

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