Saturday, June 16, 2012

Will Football Become Extinct, Part II?

A school board member in the Philadelphia suburbs has advocated for the cessation of football in her school district, one of the largest in Pennsylvania.  Patty Sexton, a board member in the Council Rock school district (known for a blend of great academics and good sports), came out publicly to ban football in a school board meeting this past week.  Her "made to stick" quote was that the school district was in the business of developing brains, not destroying them.

Sadly and interestingly, her statement drew little reaction, except from a district athletic director who respectfully disagreed with her.

Don't expect this issue to go away, for a few reasons.

First, practical school district economics.  Football is expensive.  It requires a lot of coaches, a lot of equipment and a lot of insurance, all for say 100 kids per high school.  Sure, football aficionados will argue that other kids get involved -- band kids, the cheerleaders, what have you, but at the end of the day a disproportionate amount of the athletic budget gets allocated to football.  If you ask you, the only logical reason you'd get is because it's always been that way.  As public pension burdens grow and as the population ages, districts will have to make hard choices about funding extracurriculars.  While football has been somewhat of a sacred cow at the college level (especially at Division I, where it's a revenue generator and where schools have been more likely to cut wrestling or baseball), that's not the same in high school.  It could well be that some school districts -- particularly urban ones -- will put football in the crosshairs as budgets get tighter.

Second, injury.  The statistics -- numerical and ambulatory -- are hard to ignore.  Suicides, dementia, Alzheimer's and debilitating physical injuries of former football players are just too hard to ignore.  Parents are deluding themselves to use hope as a strategy, as in "well, that won't happen to my kid."  It's hard enough to raise kids with disabilities that they've inherited or arose at birth, but why would you submit your kid to constant collisions?  And before anyone argues, "well, you don't understand the comradery, the glory, you never played, it's hard to argue with empirical evidence.  The types of collisions that take place in football repeatedly from the time a kid is eight are harmful and have long-term consequences that have existed for a while but that are being studied closely now.  How long did a larger portion of the country smoke cigarettes before all of the data came out as to how harmful smoking is for a person?  Good, hard-working men have become severely disabled or have died because of the risks that they took playing.  How many would have willingly subjected themselves to the pounding and grinding had they known what their lives would be like after 40, 45 years old?   These facts are too hard to ignore.

I recently saw a TV news report on former Eagles' fullback Kevin Turner, who is battling ALS.  I hadn't seen Turner on TV since he played, and recalled him as a buzz-cut, chiseled blocker (who also could catch the ball) who looked tough as nails.  Today, he's a shadow of his former self, resembling not someone who experienced all the pageantry of Saturdays in college and Sundays in the NFL, but of someone who's suffered a major trauma from which he'll never recover.  He was a robust, vibrant young man once.  Not any more.

Sometimes, the biggest lies are the ones that we tell ourselves.  Frequently, the hardest thing for an individual or a society to do is to admit that the course they or s/he have/has been on is misguided or errant.  To admit that is to admit that a way of live to which so many subscribed was wrong, and many would prefer to steer their own ship into the iceberg because to change course would be to admit too many painful things rather than to change course, confront the anxiety that change brings and work hard to replace the discarded behavior with something newer and better.  (I personally would worry about what could replace the U.S. public's apparent need for gladiators, but that should be the subject of another column.  The key fact is that football -- and the constant pounding -- is dangerous.  There's no two ways about it.  Patty Sexton might be a lone voice today, but as constitutional scholars are wont to say, "today's dissents become tomorrow's law."

It would be interesting to read in ten to fifteen years (such is the dynamic and speed of change) columns like this one.  For many years skeptics questioned the increased offense in Major League Baseball, only to be ignored because the baseball press (including access-addicted lions such as Jayson Start, Buster Olney, Peter Gammons, Tim Kurkjian and many lesser names) ignored the increased size of players and the rumors that abounded about steroid use.  Yet, the skepticism built, people talked, and lo and behold a bunch of difficult facts came out -- namely, that the inflated records arose -- to some if not a large degree -- because of banned substances.  The difference here is that football is legal and sanctioned, but it's dangerous nonetheless, and as the evidence mounts it will become harder to ignore.

I don't think that football will vanish, but I do think that it will become more like touch football.  Players will wear more pads, hitting will be limited significantly, and flags will be introduced at some point.  After all, these are human beings -- people's children -- that we're talking about -- and we cannot continue to send them into this type of violence without more thought, more study and more care.  

Just ask the 2,100 NFL alums who are suing the league because of life-altering injuries that they sustained.

Or the many others who cannot be party to the suit. . . David Duerson, Andre Walters, Ray Easterling.

Because they died way too young.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Visit to Fenway Park

The family and I went to Boston last weekend, and one of our major stops was Fenway Park.  The kids have seen Fenway on television and have heard of its lustre, but it's one thing to see pictures and another to be there, especially during the 100th anniversary of this fabled stadium.  We had a beautiful day -- 79 and sunny -- to watch the hometown BoSox host the Washington Nationals.  Ironically, it's the visitors who have a hot hand and are the pleasant surprise of the year (at least to some, because for others their success is not a surprise), while the hometown nine have more payroll on the disabled list than almost any other team in baseball (and the payroll for which exceeds the entire payroll of several Major League teams).  In addition, Kevin Youkilis (who hometown fans near me derided for perhaps being the source of the "beer and chicken gate" story last year didn't start, and neither did Nationals' phenom Bryce Harper or highly paid OF Jayson Werth.

Here are a few observations:

1.  I had last been at Fenway about 20 years' ago, when Danny Darwin pitched 5 2/3 of no-hit ball before fading, and the magic remains.  We sat on the right-field line, watched a foul ball land two seats before us and saw Big Papi homer to right.  We had a good view of the scoreboards and, of course, the Green Monster, enjoyed our obligatory peanuts and the overall scenery.

2.  It's fun to take public transportation to the ballpark.  Hint when heading back from Fenway -- cross the street from where the crowd is going, walk toward the Barnes & Noble and then enter the T from that entrance.  There is no crowd (where there is a huge one on the same side of the street as the ballpark).

3.  The BoSox didn't play with a lot of energy.  They didn't have the customary bounce in their step.  Then again, they had some AAAA players in the lineup and, in many ways, are analogous to the Philadelphia Phillies.  The lineup doesn't particularly scare anyone, and Jordan Zimmerman of the Nats pitched very well, as did Jon Lester of the BoSox, who deserves better run support.  In contrast, the Nats plays with some zing and oomph.  For example, closer Tyler Clippard strolled into the game for a save opportunity as if he owned the place.  And then there was Bryce Harper. . .

4.  He didn't start, but he pinch hit in the top of the ninth with the game tied, working a walk in a great at-bat.  Then, running as if there were no tomorrow in a ballpark that cannot be considered cavernous, he scored from first on a double, showing a tremendous amount of hustle.  Ballgame over.

5.  Hard to see what the point was of Bobby Valentine's getting tossed by plate ump Al Porter late in the game.  Porter called a pretty decent game, and his ball and strike calls didn't determine the outcome for the Sox.  Perhaps Valentine asked to be tossed so that he didn't have to watch his relatively lifeless team blow a game and show little energy.  The irony of this is that the front office canned Terry Francona because the clubhouse lost its edge and its discipline, hence beer and chicken-gate.  But the team showed little energy under Valentine, which means either a) the manager isn't the issue, b) the team needs more and better leaders (read:  no one has replaced, among others, Jason Varitek) and/or c) the team just doesn't have enough talent.  In any event, chemistry is an issue in Boston, and the big-dollar signings so far look like major mistakes (John Lackey, Carl Crawford).

6.  I disagree with the fan who called Youkilis a snitch, if, in fact, it was he who outed the pitchers who seemingly were irresponsible during the Sox' collapse last September.  Someone had to say something, and organizations go to seed quickly if bad ethics or poor performance becomes the norm.  It is regrettable and that the leaders on the team didn't step up and clean up their own mess or that highly paid professionals didn't act that way, but who's to blame Youkilis if in fact he complained about an abject lack of professionalism and discipline at season's end.  The BoSox' collapse was historic in its magnitude.

7.  All in all, a terrific experience, worthy of going to an old-time ballpark with a lot of history.  I like the new parks, too, although Yankee Stadium seems corporate, Citi Field seems vertical, hotel-like and cavernous, and, very much relatively speaking, Citizens Bank Park seems a cookie-cutter copy of the other modern stadiums.  That's tough criticism in comparison, of course, but there is charm in Boston.  It's just a shame that the 2012 edition of the Red Sox seems destined not to make the playoffs.