Full disclosure, I love football. As I type this on Sunday morning, I am watching the college football highlights on ESPN. Simultaneously, I am looking forward to the opening Steelers game tonight. When Saint Vincent decided to restart a football program after an over 40-year hiatus, I was excited and remain devoted to our team. My older son, Logan, and I watched yesterday’s game through the raindrops. Although I never played football at a level beyond intramurals and the playground, much of almost every late summer and fall weekend since junior high school has been spent watching and playing football – unfortunately much more watching and less tossing and catching the football in recent years; OK, I admit it, decades. Football’s strategy, physicality, and aesthetics make the sport extremely compelling and explains the sport’s popularity - replacing baseball in my lifetime as our national pastime/obsession. The sport teaches the importance of teamwork and preparation, the balance between quick decisions and improvisation and sticking to a long-term game plan, and striving for something bigger than oneself. Football teaches its lessons to both players and spectators, its value and meaning extend far beyond the field of play.
Increasingly, our attention has become focused on the long-term effects football has on its players. Particularly our awareness of the danger of concussions, especially multiple head injuries in a short period of time, has grown. I have personally witnessed how devastating these injuries have been for students in my classes – admittedly not all have been football players, some having been injured playing other sports or even in car accidents. While better awareness has resulted in more careful evaluation of players to determine when it is safe to return to practice and play, the effectiveness of these measures on preventing tragedies such as Mike Webster, Junior Seau , and Dave Duerson will take years, perhaps decades, to determine.
The same violent, high-speed collisions that have such serious long-term consequences also occasionally result instantly in devastating, life-threatening, and permanently life-altering injury. This was the case yesterday afternoon for Tulsa safety Devon Walker. The senior, cell and molecular biology major, collided head-to-head with a teammate attempting to make a tackle. After the collision Devon lay motionless with a fractured spine. This morning, he is in stable condition, in traction, and awaiting surgery. Unfortunately Devon was not the only serious injury yesterday. Arkansas cornerback Tevin Michel also had to be carted off the football field secured to a backboard after a similar collision with a teammate. Without hesitation our thoughts and prayers go out to Devon and Tevin and their families. These two serious injuries within hours of each other underscore the inherent risk of playing football. The fact that both players were involved in high speed, head-to-head collisions with teammates demonstrates that rule changes alone would be unlikely to have prevented these injuries. Looking at the physics, each collision was with a heavier player and similar to the analysis of car crashes; the damage to the lighter participant in the crash is going to be much more severe. Even with high-tech equipment to cushion the blow, bones and tissue have limits that can be exceeded by the forces that the human body can deliver. Well-trained athletes, strong and fast, can inflect horrific damage on themselves and others, both intentionally and accidentally.
As President, Theodore Roosevelt threatened to outlaw football because of the serious injuries that were occurring. The image to the right shows the first professional football team – the Latrobe Athletic Association team of 1897. Rules and equipment were changed and the sport grew and prospered. Today, significant change must again occur to protect the players from the threats of both instantaneous and long-term injuries. Regardless of the popularity and the value of the sport, the risk to the players is far too great. My hope is that colleges and universities will become leaders by implementing substantial rule changes to protect our student-athletes and to provide a guiding light that will help the sport to find a new safer, future. I do not pretend to have the knowledge or wisdom to predict the appropriate future for football. Perhaps it will look like the seven-on-seven hybrid game that has been growing in popularity, without pads or linemen. Perhaps it will look more like rugby, from which it originally evolved. Regardless of how football evolves, the most popular sport in America must significantly change to ensure that the players, who are faster, bigger, and stronger than ever before, can play a game without risking the long-term use of their body and mind. I still love football, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to watch without a growing feeling of hypocrisy – a feeling I fear that I might share with the Romans watching gladiatorial games in the Coliseum. Let’s adapt to the present environment and change football to be safer for the long-term benefit of the players’ health – and the spectators’ souls.
Dr. John Smetanka,
Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January, 2008.