As a high school football coach, I insisted that my team learn their math, read their English assignments, and attend the school music concert. While some of these ideas were foreign and maybe even senseless to many of my players, I urged them to be well-rounded in their education so they could appreciate the talents, efforts, and the dispositions of others. Not all young men are football players, just as most aren’t concert pianists. And, while a violin concerto or a Cormac McCarthy novel might cause some hearts to palpitate (mine included) other equally worthy human beings get the same reaction from a crack block or a quarterback sack (myself included, again). As important as it is for the athlete to respect the scholar, it is equally important that the scholar respect the athlete.
I feel badly whenever a young boy approaches me at one of the many schools I’ve addressed as a children’s author to apologize for his disinterest in sports. My answer is always the same: I’d rather have my own kids be great readers than great athletes. I know the power of reading, thought and education. I know they supersede sport in the scoreboard of life. Still, my love of sports and especially football (the greatest sport of them all) runs deep. I applaud and support those who want to help it evolve, to make it better and maybe safer. Those who want to end its existence are as misguided as a poor fool who would eradicate music, art, or literature.
Pent up inside some young men are brilliant patterns of numbers or notes, symphonies and great inventions ready to burst. Pent up in others are a primal aggressiveness, a passion, and a propensity toward violence that – while sometimes frightening even to those who possess it – has played as important a role in the history of the human race as the creators of the sublime. They are the great soldiers who’ve protected us, the police who’ve enforced our laws, and the industrialists who’ve driven us to build and better the world around us. Even if you can’t understand the primal part of man or celebrate it like the poet Robert Bly, the dark side of human nature nevertheless exists and craves an outlet.
Football is the perfect answer.
While a football player like Ray Rice might allow this violence to spill into the mainstream of his life, the numbers show that most players don’t. Compared to the general population, NFL players are less than half as likely to perpetuate acts of domestic violence and all other crimes. The meanest football players I ever faced in the NFL were kind and gentle giants off the field. The beauty of the sport is that the violence is contained – like an electric charge in a bottle – within the confines and the stringent rules of the game.
Like it or not, violence is why America loves football. The game captures the cunning strategy, exhausting endurance, brute strength, poetic skill, and selfless teamwork we love in all our other sports, but it is performed in an environment of dangerously intense violence. It is that danger, the risk of being smashed and even broken, which cause so many to marvel at football and revere its players. I’m talking now about football at its highest level but, just as Mozart’s 9th Symphony began as a child when he learned a simple scale, all football begins at the youth level.
I love youth football because – like the recorder we all got to toot on in music class – it provides an opportunity for almost all young boys to taste the experience and learn whether it’s for them. And if it is, then the game is much more than an outlet for latent aggression. Football is the most palpable lesson in perseverance available to our kids. The essence of football is being knocked down and getting back up. I always tell parents that it’s a game of getting up, and a lesson brought home clearly with the pop of pads.
In life, our boys will be knocked down (over and over, if my own life is any indication). What will they do? Remain beaten and submissive? Run and hide? Hopefully, they’ll attack the setbacks and challenges life presents with renewed determination. Football will teach them that. Our boys will be parts of teams, groups with a common purpose where the best thing for all will be for them to subordinate their personal interests to the greater good. Will they operate on islands of selfishness, alienating others, or work together and sometimes do those thankless difficult tasks that benefit everyone? Football will teach them that. In life, our boys will take on daunting tasks with no end in sight. Will they drop their hands when they tire, or grind on believing that the next bend in the road will reveal the finish? Football teaches perseverance, even at the youngest levels.
Youth football is under attack because it is the Achilles heel of the sport. It has no TV contracts, no naming rights, and no global endorsements. Youth football costs money. Money, time and grueling effort. Those who play are rewarded with the scales – not of music, but some of life’s great lessons: perseverance, teamwork, and sacrifice.
While I see little boys learning those lessons, bumping into each other with Kazoo-like helmets that seem more jest than battle gear, mothers only hear that they might get hurt. The damage can be serious, even life-threatening. Mothers, wringing their hands, fret over their babies going into battle. Well, yes and no. It may carry with it the thrill of battle for those boys who shine toward this type of pastime, and injuries not only can but will happen, but it’s not as drastic as you may think.
If you look at the numbers, head injuries in soccer, basketball, and baseball are nearly as alarming (or not) as the number occurring in football, and all are dwarfed by cheerleading and the dreaded bicycle. When it is unequivocally alarming – an actual fatality in sports – football ranks behind softball, water polo, and gymnastics and is within a fraction of lacrosse and basketball. So, no doubt, football is dangerous, but I always tell parents who ban their kids from football that I can only respect their decision if they also prohibit riding a bike.
Our boys don’t have to grow up to be the kind of men who can play football. We need doctors and teachers and leaders filled with kindness and compassion with very little or no inner nastiness. They are our angels. Yet, for those who do possess this testosterone-charged, old school, down and dirty, quick-fused inclination toward battle, let’s give them football to play and to watch. And let’s let our boys choose, discover for themselves what’s really buried down deep inside themselves, neither judging nor favoring, but accepting that this is the way of some very good boys who may well become some very good and valuable men.
To explore more on the debate about youth football click here.