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Sack Those Quarterbacks! The Case For Banning High School Football

Steve Almond: "What is a dangerous, insanely commercialized form of athletic combat doing in our public schools?" Pictured:  Members of the Platteview High School football team practice in Springfield, Neb. (Nati Harnik/AP)closemore
Steve Almond: "What is a dangerous, insanely commercialized form of athletic combat doing in our public schools?" Pictured: Members of the Platteview High School football team practice in Springfield, Neb. (Nati Harnik/AP)

A few days ago, something miraculous happened in Caro, Michigan. A high school football coach went to his administrators — not to ask for more money, or a bigger stadium, or increased practice time — but to express fear about the safety of his players. The team, decimated by injury and over-matched, then voted to cancel the remainder of its season.

The accepted wisdom is that football helps certain boys develop discipline and teamwork and gives them a chance to channel their aggression. You hear this argument all the time, often from former players who confuse their own nostalgia for the game with an honest critique of its effects.

The superintendent who ratified the decision, Mike Joslyn, explained it this way: “It’s a difficult decision because our players were out there battling hard, but we’re an educational institution, and with our students, safety comes first. These kids have long lives ahead of them, and we need to keep the brains in their heads intact.”

It is a testament to our collective addiction to football that this story ranks as shocking in the first place.

But as a nation, we have come to view the sport as somehow intrinsically a part of the high school experience. More than a million kids play, and entire communities rally around teams.

The accepted wisdom is that football helps certain boys develop discipline and teamwork and gives them a chance to channel their aggression. You hear this argument all the time, often from former players who confuse their own nostalgia for the game with an honest critique of its effects.

The question almost no one dares to ask is painfully obvious: What is a dangerous, insanely commercialized form of athletic combat doing in our public schools? In an era when parents lament rising class sizes, crumbling facilities and underpaid teachers, why are taxpayers underwriting a form of entertainment that quite literally causes students to suffer diminished brain function?

Now is probably the ideal moment for this question to be posed, given what’s transpired over the past few weeks. This includes the deaths of three teenage players, two of whom died from injuries sustained on the field.

Equally disturbing are the details emerging of the sadistic hazing rituals carried out at Sayreville High School in New Jersey, which, I should warn you, may make you sick to your stomach.

It’s easy enough to dismiss these episodes as isolated incidents. But it’s harder to dispel the notion that football, for whatever virtues it imparts, can also foster values that represent a distorted sense of masculinity, one marked by violence, conformity, homophobia and disrespect for women.

Even if we accepted that the game, on balance, provides a positive experience for those who play, the question would remain: should public high schools be allocating precious resources toward a sport whose essential function is not education, but entertainment?

In an era when parents lament rising class sizes, crumbling facilities and underpaid teachers, why are taxpayers underwriting a form of entertainment that quite literally causes students to suffer diminished brain function?

And, of course, profit. Because, like it or not, the high school game has become, in some precincts, as all-consuming and commercialized as the pro game. This is why some players practice and weight train year-round, weigh more than 300 pounds, and play in stadiums that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. ESPN now airs big match-ups.

All this makes for great television, but it’s a lousy way to run a high school, because the incentives for players have almost nothing to do with academics. Instead, many devote all their time and energy to pursuing a dream of NFL glory that only a tiny fraction will attain.

To be clear: removing football from public high schools would not represent a ban. It would simply mean that those who cherish the game would have to establish private leagues, the model used in many European countries.

To those who cling to the status quo, this idea might seem radical. Nonsense. The money we invest in public high schools should be spent educating students and preparing them to contribute to our society, not exhorting them to stage spectacles for our amusement.


Steve Almond is the author of the new book “Against Football.” He will be appearing at the Lexington Depot on October 23.


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Steve Almond Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is the author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction. He writes Cog's advice column, #HeavyMeddle, and is the co-host of Dear Sugar Radio.

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