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A Moral Dilemma

Though he played football through college, a high school coach from the Northeast believes the risk of head trauma is now too grave and won’t let his children play. He questions the ethics of leading others’ kids onto the gridiron, and wonders if we should all be having second thoughts about the sport
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By an anonymous high school football coach

Click here to read a counterargument by Jeff Scurran, the coach at Catalina Foothills High School in Tucson, Arizona. 

If football hasn’t been my entire life, it’s played a large role in shaping nearly everything in my life. I played it as young child, in middle school, in high school and in college. I have coached high school football ever since I graduated from college, more than a decade ago. But I will not allow my child to play. Not this version of football, anyway.

I am writing anonymously for two very simple reasons. I am not a head coach, and anyone who knows anything about football understands there is a rigid chain of command on a coaching staff. I am also a teacher in the same district where I coach. While I am interested in sharing my perspective, I am not interested in the disruption that attaching my name to such a story would bring to both of my professional capacities.

Should I even be coaching? It’s a moral dilemma I grapple with nearly every time we go out for practice and every time we take the field on Friday nights. I love the game, but how can we ignore the mounting scientific evidence that kids who play football aren’t just crippling their academic potential, they’re also risking their long-term quality of life by subjecting themselves to repeated brain trauma? I believe it’s only a matter of time before medical research buries football under an undeniable truth: that we shouldn’t be playing this game.

I suppose I still coach for the same reason that football still dominates the American sports scene—it’s hard to stop doing what you love. Coaching is an extension of the things that made me fall in love with the game when I was 8 years old. My father and uncles played football in college, and because I was a heavy-set kid, everyone always asked if I was going to be a football player like my dad. Even now, I feel connected to history every time I step on the field—not only the game’s history, but also my family’s.

I put students in harm’s way, the very harm from which I would protect my own child. Is it hypocritical? It seems reprehensible, and I cannot offer a defense other than to say I struggle with it every day and every season.

I also developed a love for the technical aspects of the game. I was never the most athletic, the biggest or strongest person on the field, but I learned how to thrive. Football makes you reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. What I lacked in size, I could make up with technique. What I lacked in strength, I could make up for with guile. As an offensive lineman, I relished the mental battles. For every snap I would have to think about the play call, my assignment, the defensive front, my vertical and horizontal split, the defensive lineman and linebackers’ stances and demeanors, the down and distance, the previous plays, my stance and weight distribution, real and false communication with my fellow lineman. I could leverage all of that knowledge to be as successful as possible. As a coach, I can still compete on the same mental and technical levels.

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Can football change? Will the sport become safer? How are concussions impacting the game’s future?

Introducing an in-depth series where we tackle those questions, starting at high schools and continuing into college and the NFL. Read the entire series.

There is no denying that football is a special game, that it presents the most challenging crucible in all of sports. In the entitled suburb where I teach, there aren’t many challenges. Students are adversity-deprived and lack opportunities to develop coping mechanisms to deal with the intense stress that occurs when the best laid plans in life go awry. All sports are intense in their own way, but football is different: no other sport plays just once a week; no other sport practices so many specific situations; no other sport has so many highly specialized positions; no other sport depends on 11 people being on exactly the same page on every single play. Football’s lessons of teamwork, perseverance, regimen, and physical and mental toughness are more strenuous than other sports.

When I say football is a crucible, I am not speaking of its violent nature as a virtue. I am referring to the physical and mental stress that ultimately produces individuals who are better tempered to deal with crisis and adversity. But it is precisely football’s inherent violence that will ultimately eliminate the sport from the fabric of the high school experience. And the death of football will be tragic, mostly because it will be a long, slow, violent suicide.

Football has always demanded a lot from its players in terms of commitment and exposure to injury. I always viewed those as worthwhile sacrifices, but no longer. Had I known the potential risks to my cognitive ability and mental health, I never would have played the game. I suffered a few concussions as a football player, and I know my worst semesters as a student coincided with those injuries. As a teacher, I see my players having those same academic struggles as they recover from concussions. Every time a player gets one, which is quite frequently, I ask myself how I can help prevent the potential devastation of his life. You might wonder if my heart is in coaching anymore, or if I might be overreacting. Let me put it this way: My heart is in the right place. I still coach football because I fear what someone else might do in my position. Players implicitly trust coaches to see to their welfare, but I wonder: Can we fully protect them when we’re working them up to a fevered pitch and unleashing them on other vulnerable teenagers every Friday night?

I understand how this looks. I put students in harm’s way, the very harm from which I would protect my own child. Is it hypocritical? It seems reprehensible, and I cannot offer a defense other than to say I struggle with it every day and every season. There will come a day, probably in the near future, when I can no longer balance the conflicts or rationalize what I’m doing and quit. Every coach, every school and every community across the country might be having these kind of second thoughts about football.

Players implicitly trust coaches to see to their welfare, but I wonder: Can we fully protect them when we’re working them up to a fevered pitch and unleashing them on other vulnerable teenagers every Friday night?

Last Friday, the team I coach had a chance to wrap up a league title. As we took the field, I was fully aware that football probably won’t exist in my community 25 years from now. I coach and teach in an affluent community in the Northeast, and I simply cannot fathom the parents in this community supporting football for much longer.  

When I began coaching here 10 years ago, there were six Pop Warner youth teams. Now there are two, and their rosters are dwindling. When I eat lunch with coworkers, many who live in nearby towns and have young children, they argue and discuss many things about child rearing. But they all agree, their children will never play football. In a community like mine, where there are very few obstacles to success, football serves little purpose. These students have very little to gain and a great deal to lose by playing football. The best-case scenario for the sport, I believe, is that it becomes a regional game where football is needed as way to escape—a way to go on to college and open doors to social mobility.

I am a history teacher, so I take a long view. Football almost became extinct over 100 years ago. In the early 1900s, player deaths were rather common in high school and college football, with 18 alone occurring in 1905. Yet it took a directive from President Theodore Roosevelt to change the game. Chief among the innovations that saved football was the introduction of the forward pass, which made the game safer for players. I don’t know what the answer is exactly, but football needs that type of innovation now. I don’t know much about physics, but it seems unlikely that helmet technology will evolve to the point where concussions are eliminated from the game—to say nothing of the subconcussive hits that occur on every play. No matter the size, weight or hardness of a helmet, the brain will always be able to move around inside the skull.

The game must change fundamentally, radically even. I understand this isn’t a popular opinion and that there will be a great deal of resistance—there always is when progress goes up against an entrenched tradition, especially one as well-funded as football. But there is hope. For my son’s sake, I hope it changes. If not, he’ll never take the field and learn the same lessons that I did from the sport I love. I no longer believe the rewards justify the risks.