By Ken Reed

Two interesting articles about youth and high school football were published in the last week.

Each of them looked at the growing football cultural war from a variety of perspectives.

The first piece, Patrick Hruby’s well-researched treatise, “Friday Night Lights Out,” looks at the allure of the game for players, coaches and fans and then proceeds to lay out the evidence as to why high school football should be abolished. (The research evidence in favor of abolishing high school football due to the game’s dangers to the human brain is increasingly overwhelming.)

The second article, written by Ken Belson of the New York Times, tells the story of youth football in Marshall, Texas. Two private youth football clubs popped up this year after the town started to cut back on youth and school football programs. The seventh grade team was dropped due to safety concerns. The Pop Warner program folded due to a shortage of players following all the national attention on football-related concussions. And the local Boys & Girls club dropped tackle football due to litigation concerns.

Both of them are well worth the read for people on both sides of the issue.

Actually, there’s more than one issue involved. One, should kids, 18 and under, be playing a sport that’s hazardous to their brains, especially since those brains are still in the developmental stage? And two, should taxpayer dollars be used in public schools to fund a sport that endangers young brains rather than enhancing them?

It’s not really a question about banning youth football. This is a free country and if parents want to put their kids in tackle football programs that’s their choice. (Although, ethically, there’s the issue about whether adults should be placing children in an activity that’s dangerous to their brains before those kids reach the legal age of consent for decision-making.) Private football clubs, like the one in Marshall, undoubtedly would spring up if middle school and high school football was abolished.

Another issue, beyond the brain safety topic, centers around what the bang for the buck is for public school football from an education perspective. Football’s an expensive activity for a relatively small percentage of the student body. And research has shown that it impairs academic performance. On the other hand, things like music programs, daily physical education classes, and intramural sports programs — which engage a much higher percentage of the student population — have been shown to enhance academic performance.

And if it’s character traits like hard work, perseverance, discipline and teamwork that one’s concerned about, well, those traits can certainly be developed in other sports or in music programs.

“It’s by far the most expensive sport,” says John Gerdy in Hruby’s piece. Gerdy is a former college All-American basketball player and author of Air Ball: American Education’s Failed Experiment with Elite Athletics.

“So much time, effort, emotion, and energy is spent on it, too. But we have to ask a fundamental question about what kind of return we’re getting. Football heaps a tremendous amount of resources on a few elite kids, and pushes everyone else to the sidelines to watch. And we’re doing this in one of the most obese nations on the planet!

“As parents, teachers, board members, we have to ask: Is football meeting all the justifications that we have for it? And if not, then what is our responsibility?”

It’s a question that, as a nation, we shouldn’t ignore. In fact, it demands some serious reflection, not avoidance.

These two articles are a good place to start.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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