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Is the Culture of Football Violence Finally Beginning to Change?

Pop Warner game, 2002
Pop Warner game, 2002Donald Miralle/Getty Images
Tony SarnoffContributor IIJune 20, 2012

The great revelation from last week’s announcement that Pop Warner would take steps to reduce concussions is that the ‘culture’ of football is finally changing.  

As Colin Cowherd put it, “For all you meatheads out there who say, ‘it’s a man’s game, put a skirt on, it’s a man’s game,’  if you don’t make football safer now, in 15 years, it’s going to look like baseball, increasingly unathletic, increasingly fewer of our great athletes playing it.” 

And who is forcing this cultural change?  Not Pop Warner, with its 400,000 kids.  Not the NFL, not high school or college coaches. Not the equipment manufacturers. Not the football ‘industry’, but “moms.”

And the effect is less and less subtle. According to the The National Sporting Goods Association, overall football participation among all age groups, between 2001 and 2011, has increased 4.7 percent.  There's been a huge increase in the number of 7 to 11 year-olds playing but interestingly a 9.6 percent drop in the age group, 12 to 17.

High school football participation has also seen a modest drop in recent years, although that may have to do more with economics than fear of concussions. 

But how this is going to play out, especially when by one estimage it’s possible that as many 60 percent of all professional players have suffered more than one concussion in their careers. Already, there are some 89 lawsuits pending involving almost 2000 players. How will they affect the willingness of say the Riddell Corporation to go on making helmets?  And does this suggest that colleges will eventually start pulling the plug on this sport?

As the evidence linking long-term debhilitation to playing the sport,  becomes greater, presumably more and more moms are going to influence their sons to turn to other sports.  One can foresee that the last moms to make this decision may be those most affected by a continuing recession.

After all, if your son is a promising player at 13, how do you turn down the possibility of entry to a prestigious high school or a college scholarship?  And once on a track of recognition in high school or college, how many mothers are going to try to turn the tide?  Could they? 

The point is that one effect of this reform may be that professional football, where 69 percent of the players already consider themselves minorities, will become increasingly the province of the underclasses.  In effect, the sport will become gradually removed from its tradition as a way that not only enables athletes to move up the social ladder but also, like the army, a common experience that teaches the virtues of working together regardless of race or class?

As the debate begins in earnest about how much danger is acceptable — by parents, doctors, coaches, and network executives — I think of Frank DeFord who once asked, in this context of how the game is changing, “what price manly?”

The answer may be, football as we know it.

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