Why we should – and why we shouldn’t – eliminate high school football

As you spend time with your friends and family in the coming weeks, bring up the topic of eliminating high school football. I think you will find it to be a fascinating conversation.

As a former economics major interested in game theory and the use of incentives for influencing behavior, I have followed the debate over football closely. I have pondered whether we should take the sport out of the schools, especially at the high school level, for months. In fact, I’ve asked my friends who work in both sports and sports medicine to make a case for or against high school football. Invariably, the football advocates point to two of the seven arguments I list here. Try to guess which ones they are. If you have other arguments for or against football in high schools, send them to me.

You might think this debate is absurd and that football isn’t going anywhere. I’d beg to differ. Read the article by Patrick Hruby in VICE about the candidate for the school board in Las Vegas who ran on a platform of banning football from high schools. This debate is coming. Start thinking through the arguments now.

I’m not taking sides, but I’d love to hear what you think below. Here are seven arguments I have for and against eliminating high school football.

Seven arguments against eliminating high school football

Risk: We need more proof of the harm from football to kids.

Despite the media perpetuating fears of kids winding up with brain damage, we don’t know the real risks. There are over 1 million high school athletes who play football each year, but a very small number of cases of CTE have ever been discovered, especially at that level. There are clearly other factors involved. We need to establish a definitive link between football and brain damage before we make drastic changes.

Safety: Football is trying to become safer for its players.

Football has taken steps to become safer. Targeting rules, tackling education, moving kickoffs, and adopting noncontact practices are just a few examples. Officials at every level of football continue to study and implement ways to protect the players.

Health: Football helps kids get in shape.

The sport provides much needed exercise. We should not discourage kids from physical activity when one-third of children and adolescents in this country are overweight or obese.

Values: Football teaches invaluable lessons that help kids throughout life.

Football teaches young men leadership, discipline and teamwork that they won’t get elsewhere. It’s a great way for them to channel their natural aggression into a more acceptable activity.

Money: At many schools, football helps fund other sports that can’t generate revenue.

Maybe football doesn’t make money at every school. At many large programs, though, the sport generates enough revenue through ticket sales, concessions and fundraisers to not only sustain itself, but also fund the other sports.

Opportunity: Football offers a way out of difficult social and economic backgrounds for many kids.

Football offers kids from difficult economic and social situations a way out. It keeps them out of trouble, helps them get a degree, and offers a shot at college they might not otherwise have. If you take football out of the schools, they might not be able to play at all.

Identity: Football is part of a high school’s identity.

If you eliminate the football team, you effectively end the marching band, cheerleading, pep rallies and homecoming. You don’t just keep 50 or 100 kids from playing a sport. You get rid of much of the school’s identity.

Seven arguments for eliminating high school football

Risk: Football must prove it’s safe for kids to play.

The data we do have about the dangers of repeated blows to the head seems compelling – and scary. Yes, we need to know much more, but the burden should be on football to prove it’s completely safe before we expose our kids to that risk.

Safety: The concussions in football harm a child’s ability to learn.

Ignore CTE down the road, and focus on concussions now. We know the toll concussions take on a child’s ability to learn. Headaches, blurry vision, dizziness, depression. Those are tough on anyone, let alone a 15-year-old student. Concussions affect high school athletes more and for longer periods of time than older players. And football is the number one sport for concussions by far.

Health: Kids can get in shape without banging their heads.

Sports are undoubtedly great for improving physical health, but kids can lose weight and stay in shape playing other sports.

Values: Kids can learn values without banging their heads too.

Football is not the only sport that can teach leadership, discipline and teamwork. For that matter, many extra-curricular activities can teach these important values.

Money: Many schools devote financial resources to football that could pay for education of students.

Many schools spend thousands of dollars on football each year when only a small fraction of the student body plays the sport. The money on high-tech helmets, neurocognitive testing, new uniforms each year and stadiums could go to teachers and academic programs that benefit every student. The money could fund education that can help every student go to college and get a job instead of the one-in-a-thousand high school football player who one day plays in the NFL.

Opportunity: Any young athletes could play club or travel football.

No one is arguing that we should eliminate football altogether – just high school football. Get it out of the schools. Club and travel football teams would develop and thrive, and parents could pay for their own kids to play in those leagues. If kids from disadvantaged backgrounds wanted to play, coaches who need to win would find a way to get them on the team.

Alternatives: Club and travel leagues would be a feeder system for college and professional football.

Private football leagues would become the feeder system to college and professional football. They would pay for their own health and liability insurance. Club and travel football would offer an option for parents who don’t mind the risk football poses to their kids without the taxpayers subsidizing that risk.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this controversial issue, no matter what side you’re on. Please leave a comment below!

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the December 22, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.

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