Opinion: Football is becoming safer and can save lives

My name is Clinton Nims and I am an assistant football coach at Grand Valley High School in Northeast Ohio where I have been coaching for the last 14 years. I recently attended the USA Football National Conference and was inspired by the many speakers that spoke about the great game of football. Speakers ranged from Hall of Famers Mike Singletary and Cris Carter, to Super Bowl-winning QB and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, to U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.

Speakers also included high school coaches Chuck Kyle, Matt Duffy, Mike Elder, Mike Kirschner and Bruce Babashan, who inspired me to write this.

While like any other sport, the game of football comes with risks, there are far more benefits that the game brings out. I write this to shed light on some of the many benefits that too often get overlooked.

We all know the game of football has recently been under attack. There are some truths to these attacks and some misrepresentations. In one of the few positive articles ”I’m a Brain Scientist and I Let My Son Play Football, “ Dr. Peter Cummings, a neuropathologist at Boston University, writes about how he lets his son play football despite the studies at the Boston University CTE Center and Mayo Clinic. In the article, Dr. Cummings discusses the sampling bias and how it is a misrepresentation for all football players and paints a picture that football is the most dangerous sport created. In fact, according to a study done by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, football ranks fourth on the list for most dangerous sport from 1982 to 2011. We all know that fear sells and football is by far the most popular sport in the United States. This is why we hear about the dangers of football rather than the three sports ahead of it. Football’s popularity drives the fear that sells because there are those that make a living selling fear rather than sharing the great benefits of football.

Since the end of the study back in 2011, there have been many measures to make the game of football even safer and USA Football has been at the forefront. Guys like Rocky Seto and Scott Peters have changed the way we make contact by taking the head out of the game. We now have systems that make how we block and how we tackle safer. Not only are these techniques safer, they are biomechanically better ways to block and tackle.

USA Football has also changed the way we introduce football at the youth level. No longer do kids go straight to 11-man full-tackle football. USA Football has a developmental model where kids start with NFL Flag Football, then progress to flag football with softshell pads called Flex Football, then to Rookie Tackle where the kids play with smaller teams and smaller fields but are introduced to tackling properly. All this happens before they are introduced to 11 man tackle. This progression is similar to what kids see in other sports such as baseball.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that kindergartener start their baseballs career playing with 90-foot bases while pitching to their peers. The emphasis of this developmental model is to develop skills while keeping the game safe until they are at the appropriate skill level to move to the next level. This is not the game that you see on the TV show “Friday Night Tykes.”

At the high school level there are limits on how much contact can be done in a week. There are protocols that make sure kids are safe to return to play. Rule changes such as outlawing crack-back blocks on defenseless players and outlawing wedge blocking have been modified with safety in mind. The equipment we have today is incredible and is developing rapidly. I last played football in 2003 and the helmets that we used back then are no longer made. Today’s helmets are designed to absorb and redirect force to help minimize concussive blows.

These measures add up to make the game safer in a way similar to when the game of football was saved in 1905. At that time, President Teddy Roosevelt thought that the game was so important to the fabric of our nation that he called upon coaches from Harvard, Princeton and Yale to change the game to make it safer. With that came the introduction of the forward pass. The game may not have survived if it were not for those who accepted these changes.

The game of football is safer today than it ever has been and it will only continue to get safer as people find better techniques and better equipment but, just like in 1905, it will take people accepting these changes.

Green Bay Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy, who also spoke at the conference, said: “There is no better sport to teach life lessons.” According to Murphy a high percentage of leaders came up through football. The greatest team sport teaches young people many lessons including resiliency, grit, responsibility, accountability, teamwork, how to overcome failures, and mental toughness to name a few.

One of my former teammates, Steve Smith, said: “Football is more than a game, it is the anticipatory set of life. Football made me the man that I am today.” Where else does one have to wake up at 6 a.m. every day to make 7 a.m. practice to work with so many different types of people everyday? In football, your race, religion, and beliefs don’t matter. Through the game of football, I’ve witnessed people overcome their racist beliefs because they had never spent that much time with a person of a different color. They realized that what they were taught is different than what they had experienced. That is life changing. Life-changing events like these change the world.

This is not to minimize these lessons in other sports, but in football everyone counts. If you haven’t seen Angus Reid’s Ted Talk “Why We Need High School Football,” you need to make 13 minutes to watch it. In the video he talks about two things that separate football from every other sport. The first is that football is the only sport that doesn’t exclude anybody. It is open to anyone. Reid says, “That is powerful when we exclude kids at a younger and younger age due to finances or athletic ability. We are always weeding them out because we have to create the best team.”

There are no cuts in football because there are roles for all kinds of people; big, small, fast, slow and everything in between. Reid also talks about the 88 unique positions a person can contribute in a starting role on offense, defense and special teams, which is the second thing that separates football from other sports. You could actually have more if you included situation specific specialty positions like nickelback, slot receiver and pass rusher.

That is 88 opportunities for a kid to be successful and to be a part of something. No other sport comes even close to offering that many opportunities. If we lose the game of football we are losing all 88 opportunities on each team for a young person to contribute to and be successful. Those add up to millions of opportunities over time. We cannot afford to lose these opportunities and chance losing our kids to trouble.

Reid hopes that when his son turns 15 schools see the value in a sport where a coach can say “come out and play” because the game of football changed his life. He points out that “the game of football has given me everything I have.” Not only did football change Reid’s life, it has changed millions of others’ lives as well. Football player Nolan Bellerose lived a life of chaos. His mother died when he was three years old, and his father left him. His uncle then took care of him and later died. Bellerose grew up with alcohol and drugs. He had depression and suicidal thoughts. In an interview with Anna Maria Tremonti from the radio show “The Current,” Bellerose said: “If I was going down the path without football I wouldn’t be here right now. I would probably either be dead or in jail right now. I 100 percent believe that. I love the brotherhood that you get from your teammates. It’s like a family. Football introduced me to a family that loved me for who I am. It saved my life.”

While it is important that we don’t ignore the issues that the game of football (and all sports for that matter) has, we must continue to spread the positives. So the next time you hear someone talking negatively about the game please chime in and share some of the positives about this great game. Don’t be afraid to encourage your children to try the game of football if they show interest. Let’s not deny our kids an opportunity to become the next great leader because the game of football saves lives.

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