Let Em’ Play

January 8, 1977 – The Minnesota Vikings were the first team in NFL history to play in 4 Super Bowls as they entered Super Bowl XI against the Oakland Raiders. Bud Grant led one of the most innovative offenses of the decade, helmed by Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton; together with the famed Purple People Eaters on defense, the Vikings ruled the NFC if the 70s, yet always came up short in the big game. They fell in Super Bowl IV to the Kansas City Chiefs, then to the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VIII, and again to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl IX. Trailing 19-7 and facing 3rd and 11 from their own 38 in the 4th quarter, Tarkenton took the snap and looked for Rookie of the Year wideout Sammy White:

White caught and held onto the ball for a first down despite the loss of his helmet. While he was taken to the sideline after, he would return to the game. Of course, it was all for naught as the Vikings fell to the Raiders in the end.

The man responsible for the hit was Oakland safety Jack Tatum, also known as “The Assassin.” Tatum was a vicious hard-hitting safety from the days when men were men and women were glad to have them. This is not to say Tatum was a great, or even a good man, in fact many stories of him suggest the opposite, but he didn’t have to be, he was a football player. Here Tatum and White become a symbol for the continued pussification of the sport that, for the moment at least, is called football.

Most are aware of recent comments concerning the safety and future of the game made by President Obama and Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. Essentially, Obama said that he’d think long and hard before letting his son, were he to ever have one, to play football; while Pollard opined that current obsession over the safety of the game and continued rule changes, both in place and proposed will cause football to go “extinct” as a sport within the next 30 years.

First off let me say that I’m certainly no parent and would never begrudge someone to raise their children how they see fit. If a parent or parents do not wish their children to play football then that’s their call. So, I have no gripes with what the President said when asked. However, my issue is with the groups of people out there that will use a statement from a figure of his magnitude as a rally call to remove the game from youth organizations and schools. Hundreds of thousands of kids, aged from 7 to 18 suit up every day from summer to late fall every year in this country. Do some of them get hurt? OF COURSE MORONS! It’s a sport like any other. Do kids get kicked in the hand playing soccer and break bones (yours truly)? Do kids get hit in the face with line drives off aluminum bats in their first live baseball game (again, yours truly)? It’s a game, people will get hurt, and it’s not like football is the only one with head injuries. Can a kid get knocked down to the court going for a rebound and end up with what may have been a concussion at the time (yeah, you guessed it)? They sure as hell can.

This brings me to what the Harbaugh brothers said in response to the President. Jim brought up his 5 month old son Jack, saying he’s glad Jack will have less competition on the field later in life, while John argued about the significance of the role youth football plays in schools throughout the country. There’s the obvious of course, money. Football, even at the lowest levels generates revenue for high schools, youth programs, and local communities. Further, football and all organized sports, teach invaluable lessons for young people that can’t be learned in classroom environments. The common rebuttal is, “Well, I’ll let my kid play basketball or baseball instead of football, they’ll learn the same lessons.” Yes much of that’s true, except there are maybe 20 kids on a baseball team and 14 on a basketball team. Football teams have more than twice that combined.

But what about the injuries? It’s just too dangerous. I’m sorry but it’s just not, at least not inherently any more or less dangerous than any organized sport. By the time kids get to high school and are playing at the varsity or JV level, it can become more dangerous, as many kids at this level are adult in terms of size and strength, add in advances in weight training and conditioning and it’s no surprise what some 18 year-olds in this country can do athletically, on a football field or otherwise. But 80% of the kids in this country that play the game won’t by the time they reach high school, fewer in college and a minute fraction will play the game professionally, where it is truly dangerous. The majority of people that play football do so at an age where they simply do not have the strength or speed to cause significant serious injury (read: spinal and head injuries).

Also, it’s not like the problem is going unnoticed anymore. Everyone is aware that there is danger, even if the full extent of the danger isn’t entirely understood yet. Companies like Nike, Reebok, and Under Armor spend millions of dollars in R&D hoping to be the one that finds the answer, and subsequently produces the equipment to combat it. In the video alone you can see how far we’ve come with the development of football equipment. The free-market in work everyone! The industry is constantly coming up with new breakthroughs in science and equipment to help understand major injuries and prevent them.

This is where Pollard enters the equation. Is he right? Are we headed to a football-free world by 2040? What do you think? In the Super Bowl era alone football has grown farther and faster than any other sport by an almost exponential rate. Prior to the 60s, it was a fringe sport less popular than horse racing and boxing. A mere 50 years later it is the most watched, highest grossing sport in the entire world. Anyone who thinks its going anywhere is sadly mistaken. Take the college level for example. The size of the football team vastly out paces any other counterpart, resulting in far higher numbers of scholarships available to those who otherwise may not be able to receive a college education (the merits of the how said scholarships are provided is another story for another day, I’m referring to the principle of it here). There will always be parents willing to let their kids play and there will always be people willing to take the risks involved in exchange for the opportunity the sport presents. Simple fact. The rules continue to change, for better or worse, but you know what doesn’t? Ratings.

Take a look at the Tatum hit again. Now? Definite flag, definite fine, possible suspension. But aren’t there still players out there that do this Mr. Pollard? Flag or no? I’m pretty sure there are; and rule changes or not, we’re all still watching.

Like everything in America, the hyper-sensationalism of our modern media put instances like Dave Duerson and Junior Seau front and center, and the nation cries foul. But for every instant like that, there are hundreds of thousands out there like me that played the game as a kid and are better for it. I played football, my 11 year old nephew plays football, and if my kid wants to, they can play the game too. Getting rid of the game is not the answer. The answer is found in the understanding of the injuries, the development of the equipment, and emphasis on correct form tackling. The NFL along with its many partners must continue to fund research into concussions and other brain and spine injuries as well as the development of enhanced equipment. Instead of replaying vicious hits seven times before the next play (Pollard on Ridley ring a bell?), maybe avoid showing the replay at all. The hits will happen, but they don’t truly imbed themselves in our minds until we’re shown them over and over again. Young players see this and think that’s how to do it, which is not the case. If tackles are made properly, both parties involved have significantly reduced risk of injury. But how many times do we see form tackles compared to helmet-to-helmet slams?