Football is at a watershed moment

semerson@macon.comJanuary 28, 2013 

ATHENS -- This much is clear: Football will never hurt for fans. As a spectator sport, it is the top choice on television and in person. It is as popular as ever to watch and enjoy.

But the sport needs participants. It needs the gladiators. And the creeping concern is whether a future generation of Americans could abandon actually playing football.

During the tail end of an interview last week with The New Republic, President Obama said that if he had a son -- instead of two daughters -- he might not let them play.

“I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” Obama said. “And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”

Whatever you think of Obama’s politics or his performance in office, the fact the President of the United States is weighing in this way is important. It’s emblematic of the rising concern about the safety of the sport and the future of it.

And everyone who loves the sport, as I do, should take heed.

Obama’s thoughts on whether he’d let his (hypothetical) son play football is increasingly being played out across America these days. My wife has already put her foot down on this subject. I have time to change her mind ... but I haven’t decided if I should. I know many other parents who aren’t going to let their kids play tackle football.

And have I, as someone who makes my living covering the sport, had my moments of squeamishness about profiting by writing on a sport that adversely affects the long-term health of many of its participants? Yes, I have.

Football should certainly be worried about the next generation abandoning the sport, or at least enough people not playing it that the interest is diminished drastically. The gladiators went away with the Romans. No, that (probably) won’t happen here.

But the danger for football is that the pool of men playing the sport is reduced to those who play it as a way to escape poverty or because they love the violence. Those who love football, and obviously I’m among them, don’t want football to go the way of gladiators, where the rich watch the poor fight.

Football will just have to adapt in order to continue to thrive. The emphasis should be on athleticism, the beauty of the passing game, brilliant running, the speed of the defense, athletic interceptions -- and, yes, even kicking and punting. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be a place for tackling and blocking and contact in general. But the safety will have to be ratcheted up. The technology to allow contact plays with minimal risk for long-term injury will have to be improved.

And when people do things like propose eliminating kickoffs, such radical ideas should at least be entertained and perhaps experimented with, rather than knee-jerk, simplistic responses like, “What’s next, just play flag football?”

Well, that’s what you may eventually be left with unless you adapt to the changing times and attitudes. Eventually, the tolerance for a violent game will be knocked away with each serious injury, each concussion lawsuit and each story of a retired player who has trouble walking.

We need to reach a happy medium between a beautiful game that has too many barbaric moments and a watered-down version that just amounts to flag football. That happy medium exists somewhere. We just don’t quite know what it is yet.

That’s the message from a man who loves football: Start changing now, start adapting now, in order to continue to thrive. Be stubborn and give in to a macho facade, and the next generations won’t love football the way the past few have.

The sport is at its watershed moment. It can change gradually now, or it can drastically later. The first option is the only good one.

Contact Seth Emerson at semerson@macon.com.

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