Irvin Muchnick’s Thursday interview on Up to Date, on Kansas City’s National Public Radio affiliate KCUR, can be streamed at the home page of the station website, kcur.org and at the Up to Date page, https://www.kcur.org/podcast/up-to-date, The interview, by host Steve Kraske (and also including KCUR’s Sam Zeff), can be accessed, additionally, on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and other platforms.
Far below is the full text of last Friday’s Chicago Tribune op-ed essay, “Popular or not, football doesn’t belong in our public schools.” (The text here restores material edited out of the published version. The Trib edit mostly edited for style but did delete two substantive passages.)
Without Helmets or Shoulder Pads: The American Way of Death in Football Conditioning will be published October 3. Pre-orders:
Frank Deford, late dean of sportswriters:
“Irv Muchnick produces magnificent investigative journalism.”
Bob Costas, Emmy Award-winning sportscaster:
“Football’s massive popularity is undeniable, as are the many reasons players and fans are drawn to the game. But what is also undeniable is the game’s brutality and the troubling aspects of football culture at all levels. To whatever extent the reader shares Irv Muchnick’s perspective and conclusions, the evidence and arguments he presents deserve thoughtful attention.”
Robert Lipsyte, former New York Times columnist; author of The Contender and SportsWorld:
“Muchnick’s jeremiad digs deeper than ever into the greed and hypocrisy of high school and college football and the trail of broken bodies left in their wake. His information on the perils of conditioning is essential reading and might save your kid’s life.”
Popular or not, football doesn’t belong in our public schools
This month the American ritual of preseason football practice gets underway for more than a million boys, from teenagers down to as young as 5. If past is prologue, one or more of them will drop dead somewhere, before making a single block or tackle in anger — just from their coaches’ over-the-top drills to get them into playing condition, but even more important, to make them “tougher” specimens of masculinity.
In one of the shames of national life, a colliding game meant for self-selected gladiators somehow became a platform for widespread young male aspiration. The output is a casualty count more befitting Navy SEAL exercises.
At any given time and place, there could be triggered a low-profile and unacknowledged, purportedly “non-football-related,” fatal case of bronchial asthma – such as that suffered in 2001 at Northwestern University by Rashidi Wheeler and witnessed in real time by teammate Jason Wright, now president of the Washington Commanders.
Or maybe it will be the No. 1 killer, exertional heatstroke – like Jordan McNair’s at the University of Maryland in 2018. Or, for some unfortunate and ill-informed African-American kid, an exertional attack associated with sickle cell trait, as was the case with Ted Agu in Berkeley in 2014 (though the University of California tried to cover that up as a random cardiac episode).
Since record-keeping is poor and our autopsy system is flawed, we don’t have reliable numbers, but well over 1,000 kids have probably died in high school football history, from both from traumatic collision injuries and otherwise. Preposterously, Dr. Julian Bailes, the chair of the medical advisory board for Pop Warner Football (who was portrayed by Alec Baldwin in the 2015 movie Concussion), has claimed “no reported deaths” attributable to little leagues in the 40 years before 2013. In fact, there were around 30. These included the odd cases of commotio cordis, or cardiac arrest from a blow to the precordium, the portion of the chest covering the heart – the syndrome that nearly killed the Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin on prime-time television earlier this year.
The Hamlin episode was an opportunity to take stock of football’s harm in all its varieties. But predictably, the industry flipped the script in a matter of news cycles, from sober reflection and perspective to feel-good and inspiration, as Hamlin thankfully recovered, and now is even poised to return to play.
The public simply has no idea how far the public health carnage in football extends beyond the fashionable awareness of traumatic brain injury, which alone is scary enough. Let us count the ways of neurological, orthopedic, and internal organ damage – even before we get to death itself. Have you seen a longitudinal study lately on the quality of life, as well as the life expectancy, of obese former run-stuffing defensive tackles? And how about the millions of American men who never blossomed into Patrick Mahomes, yet banged away at the sport from the pee-wees through secondary school, contributing to metrics of declines of workplace productivity and increases in domestic violence and opioid abuse?
No precinct of football fanaticism is more poignant than the minority African-American community, with its astoundingly disproportionate representation in the NCAA Division I and NFL player ranks (almost half and nearly three-fifths, respectively). Football doesn’t love them back, though: 1 in 12 Black people carries the sickle cell trait, making them uniquely susceptible to sudden death or permanent muscle damage when extreme exertion turns sour. Not eager to be responsible for curtailing opportunities in sports – one of the few areas of our society functioning more or less meritocratically – groups promoting research for cures for the more widespread and better known sickle cell anemia collude with football-firsters in tamping down awareness of and measures to mitigate exertional sickling.
This is in keeping with the general attitude of giving the spectacle of football, which does serve up helpings of thrilling entertainment and elite athleticism, a pass and a shrug. What remains unexamined is the sport’s enjoyment of a blank check of subsidies from our insurance and health care systems. Most dramatically, it gets a free ride through a professionalized private farm system, masquerading as physical education on our public fields and in our public schools.
Yes, football is America’s most popular spectator sport. So, at one time, was boxing – and we no longer have high school boxing teams. At the time of the 1964 surgeon general’s report on the health deficits of tobacco, nearly half the country’s adults smoked; today that figure is closer to one eighth.
It’s true that you can’t ban something many millions love to play and watch. You can, however, choose to put saner boundaries around who plays it and where, to replace public relations-driven guard rails in promotion of an existentially impossible goal of fundamental safety. Football mythology cites the rules tweaks inspired by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, at a time when safety concerns first had the sport on the ropes. The truth is that the old Rough Rider’s expert panel was nothing more than a dog-and-pony show – the first of many historical cycles of hand-wringing followed by enabling, rinse and repeat.
In the end, the quest to make football safer just leads to windfalls for the manufacturers of “better mousetrap” helmets and protective equipment, and for other cottage industries of the concussion-industrial complex. No one bothers to pencil out the public cost or to weigh bottomless, tail-chasing safety measures against other priorities.
In a better world, parents who want their sons to pursue this particular extracurricular activity would be required to do so in private clubs – not on the backs of our K-12 school systems, community colleges and state universities. In this way, we would at least downsize a blood sport destined for the unflattering “bread and circuses” historical treatment of some future Edward Gibbon.