Football players are back on campus at Saint John’s, thus signaling the official end of summer. The imminent start to the football season has also raised perennial questions about football player safety, particularly around the issue of concussions.
There was a little controversy recently at the Atlantic Coast Conference media days when University of North Carolina head football coach Larry Fedora said “he doesn’t believe it’s been proven that football causes the degenerative brain disease CTE and [he] offered a passionate defense of [the] sport.”
In this controversy, I found the medical issues, while important, less interesting than the defense of football Fedora gave. He argued that to significantly change the nature of the game or to give up on the game altogether would lead to “the decline of our country.”
Fedora elaborated, saying:
A few years back, I had an opportunity to ask a three-star general, I had a question for him. I said, “What is it that makes our country, our military, superior to every other military in the world?” He was like, “That’s easy. We’re the only football-playing nation in the world.” He said, “Most of all of our troops have grown up and played the game at some point in their life at some level, and the lessons that they learned from that game is what makes this [nation] great.”
Denise McAllister, commenting on the controversy agreed, writing:
Fedora has a point. Throughout human history, contact sports have been a means to strengthen men to protect their homes, clans, tribes, and countries. Through rough play and facing the power of other men on the field, men were trained to be warriors — a clear advantage for any community that wants to develop strong defenses.
Young men were knocked around in game-playing to toughen them up for life as well as war. There wasn’t much concern about their welfare because the scrapes, bruises, and broken bones were deemed a necessity. Of course, past generations didn’t have the benefit of science to show the long-term effects of these activities, but I would wager that even if they did, those generations wouldn’t change their behavior. Contact sports had an important place in society.
Moms and dads in the suburbs who are pushing to end football at all levels or keeping their kids from playing any risky sport don’t experience the daily struggles and physical threats faced by past generations. They enjoy the luxury of flaccidity. They don’t value football and its risks because they have experienced no need of the particular lessons taught by football. They’re so removed from hardship that they don’t even see the value of climbing trees.
Regardless of whether one finds these national defense arguments persuasive, I would argue that Fedora and McAllister make a valid point about tradeoffs that is important to remember. Life is filled with risks. Once one makes the decision to get out of bed in the morning, virtually every decision afterward has risks. Playing football is such a decision.
As a Division III institution, Saint John’s University’s football program does not have the public relations or economic impact most Division I programs do, but our players face the same risks of injury that other college players do. Every player, possibly with input from parents or physicians, must decide whether the potential risks of short or long term injury—the costs—are more than offset by their love of the game and all it gives them—the benefits.
I certainly know Johnnie football players who have expressed concern about letting their sons play the game they themselves did. By implication, these same Johnnies might have made a different decision for themselves if they had had current medical information available when they played the game years or decades ago.
But I know a lot more Johnnie football players who not only do not regret college athletic choices but would not change them for the world, and they delight in their young sons’ and current Johnnie players’ love of the game.
This thought experiment is made more interesting at Saint John’s because of John Gagliardi’s forward looking practice methods that minimized the risk of injury in practice decades before that became fashionable. Johnnie football alums with full information about CTE risks might rightly calculate the risk of injury to their younger selves or their sons or current Johnnies as relatively low because of John’s choices then – and growing influence now – but game day contact and injuries remain a risk under any practice regime.
These Johnnies, who would relive their football days in a heartbeat, argue that beyond their simple love of the game, football and John and Gary (Fasching) taught them life lessons that continue to pay off for years and decades after they hang up their helmets: teamwork, graceful losing, magnanimous winning, courage, perseverance, etc. etc. In short, football helped form their character.
Life lessons can be learned in many ways, but I think it is safe to say they can rarely be learned cost free. Football has provided many generations of American boys and men pleasure and learning. While there can be little doubt that playing football carries with it risks, especially of head injuries, that are real and far better understood than ever, those risks have to be set off against the real benefits football provides those who play.
Parents must make thoughtful and informed decisions for their sons, and young men must make such decisions for themselves, but each decision is personal and the answer is not obvious.
Concussions and character are inextricably intertwined in this most American of sports.
Approximately 175 young men reported for football practice in Collegeville last week.
SJU opens against UW-Stout on September 1.