Much of the Wasatch Front will be immersed in football today, with the BYU-University of Utah rivalry making a rare appearance as the debut game of the season for both teams. A healthy rivalry can be good for a community, if kept within civil bounds. For the most part, that has been the case with this one.
But the health of football itself is in question as the season begins. Concerns continue to grow over concussions and other injuries players suffer that could have lifelong consequences. The National Federation of State High School Associations is reporting that overall participation in high school sports is down for the first time in 30 years, and it’s led by declines in football. Enrollment in football is down in Utah, as well.
Solving this problem will require extraordinary leadership, the likes of which the nation hasn’t seen since Teddy Roosevelt took action 114 years ago.
But it’s important.
Not only is football woven into the American culture, with its traditions and lore, it has taught generations of young people the values of teamwork, sacrifice and specific tasks done well in obscurity. Unlike many sports, football involves players performing unique duties that, with the exception of a few who bask in the limelight, often go unnoticed despite their contribution to the overall success of the team. The game evolved in America as a symbol of the culture, even as it became part of it.
And yet the game is in trouble. Roosevelt would understand this well, were he alive today.
In 1905, professor Shaller Matthews, dean of the divinity school at the University of Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune football was “ … a boy killing, man mutilating, money making, education prostituting, gladiatorial ‘sport.’”
He had good reasons to say this. During that season, 19 college players died and 156 were severely injured. The president of the University of California said the “experiment in American college football” wouldn’t survive.
That’s when Roosevelt, an avid fan of sports and exercise, stepped in. The game was attracting tens of thousands of fans per game — numbers that soon would lead to the construction of stadiums larger than had ever been built before in the United States — and he wanted to save the sport.
He summoned the coaches and administrators of Harvard, Yale and Princeton to the White House. Those were the powerhouses of football in that day. He reportedly threatened to ban the sport altogether by executive order if they didn’t find ways to make the game safer. Later that year, he used his political might to salvage a conference of university leaders that was disintegrating into egotistical chaos, and the meeting resulted in massive rule changes.
Deadly formations were outlawed. A “line of scrimmage” was initiated, as was a 10-yard distance to a first down. The forward pass was allowed for the first time.
Gradually, the game evolved, with improvements in equipment, into a form recognizable today.
But now players have grown bigger, faster and stronger. The equipment is proving no match for the level of violent collisions on the field. New evidence shows that head injuries, while not resulting in immediate death, have long-term consequences that destroy the lives of former players.
It’s time for another Roosevelt-like leader to emerge. It’s time for the powerhouses, including the NFL, to unite to change rules or design new equipment.
Thursday night’s game, we hope, will be safe for all involved. Football, by its nature, always will involve some risk of injury. But it shouldn’t involve the sacrifice of long-term health. It shouldn’t lead to premature death.
Surely, given the advances of the last 114 years, the game can find a way to improve and save itself.