Why Public High School Football Is Doomed … Even If NFL’s Safety Double-Talk Threads the PR Needle

Deadspin Gets It Right on Chris Nowinski’s Tired Hype
October 6, 2011
Once Again — Deafening Silence on Concussions From the ‘Sports Fan Lobby’
October 7, 2011

With a long holiday weekend looming, I’m going to give the various investigative seeds planted on this blog some time to breathe and grow.

Today I’d like to review a bedrock consideration, which the general public is still underestimating. As readers know, I do not believe the National Football League has earned the benefit of the doubt in its earnest campaign to make youth football safe. But for purposes of this discussion, let’s say I’m dead wrong about that, and the $10-billion-a-year NFL’s every utterance on the concussion crisis is in 100 percent good faith. Even if you disagree on specifics, you can’t argue that improvement in some form isn’t better than no improvement.

What you can argue, however, is that saving non-professional football is a lost cause.

The rhetoric at nflhealthandsafety.com is canny; it suggests – though its own contradictory videos and doctor presentations prove otherwise – that the standards of the league can be successfully replicated at the high school and Pop Warner levels. Intuitively (if, for fans, grudgingly), we know this not to be so. Every peewee practice and game cannot be staffed with Medivac response teams, neurology specialists, and expensive “concussion management” products, any more than kiddie league coaches can be graced with Motorola headsets to communicate with assistants in the press box. Or any more than every disputed kiddie league play can be reviewed with four television angles produced by Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN, or the NFL Network.

Not. Gonna. Happen.

Notice that I’m not even getting into the scientific evidence of long-term cumulative brain trauma and its costs, to which young brains are exceptionally and immorally vulnerable – especially under the tulelage of coaches who might not be as intelligent or concerned with the wellness of their charges as was kindly Hank Rockwell at Valley Falls High School in the classic Chip Hilton sports books.

Residing in the heady environs of turbo-charged capitalism, the NFL can afford to adjust, tweak, and proceed full-steam ahead. They can afford it until such time as litigation by risk-assuming professional athletes alters the cost-benefit calculus. How successful those lawsuits will be remains to be seen.

But public high school sports don’t breathe such heady oxygen; they reside in the taxpayer-supported education sector. Of course, priorities there will never be perfect, and popular entertainments like football will always have the ability to skew the system. But ultimately, inevitably, the unsustainable costs of this particular popular entertainment will crush it.

Exactly how and when all this plays out, I don’t presume to know. Nor do I know how profoundly the fast or slow medical and legal strangulation of amateur football will affect the popularity of pro football. (I suspect very profoundly.) What I do know is this: At the top tier, the football gods are doing pretty much what we would expect them to do, and in their own minds they may even think they’re acting soberly, responsibly, and non-greedily. But I’m here to say that they are chasing their tails. Systematic brain injury cannot be eliminated from the pro game. And elimination of systematic brain injury from the amateur game is tantamount to killing at the roots the sport we know and love.

Next week: How the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is serving two masters – public health and the rich and powerful NFL.


Irv Muchnick


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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick