It is undeniably the most popular spectator sport in the United States and has been for three decades. Tackle football, with its seemingly gravity-defying catches by wide receivers, and breath-taking runs by elite running backs, outdistances in viewership all other sports.
Add to that list of attractions the hard hits made by powerful linemen, as well as by the safeties and cornerbacks who collide at ramming speed into receivers.
At the 2014 Outback Bowl, Jadeveon Clowney, the University of South Carolina’s star defensive end, was loudly lauded for the hit he put on the University of Michigan’s running back Vincent Smith that knocked Smith’s helmet off his head and onto the field.
A January 2018 “Politico” article listed football as far and away the most popular spectator sport in the US since 1972. According to the article, 37 percent of the people polled said that football is their favorite sport to watch. By comparison, 11 percent of respondents cited basketball, while baseball was favored by just 9 percent.
However, the same article also stated that football’s popularity has slipped in recent years. Polls dating back to 2006 and 2007 showed that 43 percent of people polled in those years said football was their favorite spectator sport.
According to the article, possible reasons for the drop included episodes of domestic violence committed by some players, as well as player protests during the singing of the national anthem.
A prominent reason for the decrease, however, was the emergence of studies documenting the brain injuries inflicted by the sport on football players at all levels. The 2015 movie “Concussion” was inspired by one of those studies.
So should the Town of Bourne abandon its high school football program in the interest of student safety?
Thomas R. Barnes of Gray Gables believes it should. In a recent letter to the Enterprise, Mr. Barnes detailed his concerns about the negative impact posed by football to young people’s safety.
“The information we have today indicates convincingly that sports concussions can lead to personality changes, increased violence, depression, dementia, and suicide,” Mr. Barnes said.
Mr. Barnes points out that even Brett Favre, the Green Bay Packers legend and Super Bowl XXXI winning quarterback, has turned his back on the game.
Mr. Favre has publicly stated that he may have sustained thousands of concussions during his 20-year career in the NFL. He currently suffers from some memory loss and believes himself to be a victim of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.
CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain. It has been found prominently in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, often athletes, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head that do not cause symptoms.
In his letter, Mr. Barnes wrote that Mr. Favre has stated he will not encourage his grandsons to play football. In fact, the Hall of Famer has said he would not encourage nor discourage his grandsons. During a panel discussion with several other sports celebrities, Mr. Favre said there are other sports he would prefer to see his grandchildren play.
“I would much rather be a caddie for them in golf than watch them play football,” he said.
Mr. Barnes also pointed out the case of New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. Convicted of murder in 2015, Mr. Hernandez was found dead in his prison cell, an apparent suicide. The disgraced player, Mr. Barnes said, “was said to have had perhaps the most serious case of CTE to date.”
“It is time for responsible adults in Bourne to take a stand against high school football and encourage alternative sports,” Mr. Barnes said. “We should protect the young men of the community from injuries that they will suffer from for the rest of their lives.”
Bourne High School athletic director Scott Ashworth said it would be a shame if football were to go away as a sport in the United States. Mr. Ashworth, who has coached multiple sports during his career, called football “the greatest game for teaching life’s lessons.”
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“It teaches young men how to deal with adversity,” he said. “It teaches commitment to a team and it teaches character development.”
Mr. Ashworth went on to say that USA Football, the national governing body for amateur football in the US, has gone to great lengths to teach safe tackling methods at the youth level. In addition, this fall, Massachusetts will be playing football by rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations, and not National Collegiate Athletic Association rules. That includes such protective measures as no blocking below the waist, he said.
“The NFHS rules are designed to increase safety for student-athletes,” he said. “In my opinion, NFHS rules are better suited to the high school game.”
Mr. Ashworth added that enrollment at Bourne High School could suffer with the loss of students, both players and fans, who want a football program as part of their school experience. The community at large would be impacted, he said. The games are a congregating area for everyone from students of all ages to parents, and even people who are not connected to a player but still attend games.
“ ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ” he said, “it’s a pretty big part of our culture.”
Bourne School Committee chairman Christopher J. Hyldburg and committee member Steven P. Strojny concur with Mr. Ashworth. Mr. Hyldburg said that his three children played a variety of sports at Bourne High School, and each activity carried a level of injury risk.
“All the high school coaches do a good job of teaching and monitoring the process by which they play the sport and reduce injury,” he said.
Mr. Strojny agreed that all sports—from football to hockey to riding motorcycles—have an inherent risk. Every effort is made, he said, to make things safe for the students. He noted that if a parent considers football to be too violent, there are alternatives, but he dismisses the idea of abolishing football altogether.
“It’s getting to the point of, what? Bubble-wrapping kids and sending them off to school?” he said.
The director of the Bourne Department of Recreation, Krissanne M. Caron, said the town has never offered a youth football program. Ms. Caron said there used to be a Pop Warner program in town, which is run by volunteers, but the numbers of children looking to play dropped off significantly. Bourne eventually chose to team with Sandwich on Pop Warner football, she said.
“In my opinion, the numbers dropped because of the influx of stories about players of all levels suffering serious head injuries,” he said. “Parents made a choice. As a parent, I did, and football was not an option.”
Ms. Caron said her department has tried to get a flag football program underway. It remains something she is trying to get off the ground, she said, possibly this fall.
Massachusetts State Representatives Bradley H. Jones Jr. (R-North Reading) and Paul A. Schmid III (D-Westport) are the co-sponsors of Bill H.2007. The legislation seeks to amend Chapter 111 of the General Laws, and make it unlawful for any child in grade 7 or lower to play organized tackle football.
The measure carries substantial financial penalties, up to $10,000 in the event of “serious physical harm to any participant or participants.” The bill does not prohibit children in grade 7 and under from playing any form of football that does not involve tackling.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Schmid said he was prompted to draft the legislation after watching his granddaughter play soccer. He asked the youngster why she did not head the ball during the game, and she said that she was not allowed to.
Research showed that youth soccer prohibits heading the ball before the age of 13, he said. Similar head-protecting measures have been enacted by youth lacrosse and youth hockey, he said. Unlike those other sports, Pop Warner football does not have a governing council, so no rules have been instituted to prevent head collisions, he said.
“I thought, ‘Let’s get the conversation started,’ ” he said, “so the bill says no tackle football until the age of 13.”
Rep. Schmid said that since filing the bill, he has requested that the bill not be taken up until later in the current two-year term. He said that he heard from a number of Pop Warner coaches and supporters who have urged him not to move forward with H.2007 until he has attended some practices and games. He said that he has since learned that measures have been put in place to protect children.
“I won’t push the bill along out of respect to them,” he said. “I have great respect for what they do for kids.”
Most of what has been learned about CTE comes from the research of Dr. Ann McKee, director of the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, the largest tissue repository in the world of traumatic brain injury and CTE.
In CTE, Dr. McKee’s research showed, a protein called tau forms clumps, which slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells. Her findings have revealed that CTE has been seen in people as young as 17, but symptoms do not generally begin appearing until years after the onset of head impacts.
A number of people question Dr. McKee’s research. Prominent among them is former NFL player and ESPN football analyst Merril D. Hoge. Mr. Hoge is the co-author with Dr. Peter Cummings, an assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology with the Boston University School of Medicine, of the book “Brainwashed: The Bad Science Behind CTE and the Plot to Destroy Football.”
The two men believe Dr. McKee’s results to be flawed because the studies themselves were flawed, and in a 2018 Yahoo Sports op-ed, they heavily criticized her studies. They added that the flawed study has led to a hysteria regarding football, which has caused some young people not to play, and some current players to abandon the sport.
The two said her work did not compare CTE-afflicted brains with healthy brains, studied only brains of athletes who had cognitive or behavioral disorders (what they called selection bias), and did not give consideration to other lifestyle factors—substance abuse, obesity—that have been shown to produce the protein tau, which causes CTE.
Mr. Hoge noted, for the record, that he and Dr. Cummings were not suggesting CTE does not exist or that there was nothing wrong with taking repeated hits to the head. The authors’ contention, he said, is that there is too much that is still unknown about CTE.
“There are too many unanswered questions to justify the fear and hysteria,” he said.
Ironically, Mr. Hoge was forced into retirement from playing in the NFL because of two concussions he suffered late in his career.