I played football in high school. I suffered multiple broken and dislocated fingers (the life of a wide receiver), a sprained ankle, and an undiagnosed concussion that led to post-concussion syndrome. Compared to some of my teammates, I got off easy. Though there were many parts of the experience that I didn't like, overall I had a good time playing ball.
When I look at football now compared to when I played, and compared to the generations past, I do think there has been wonderful and commendable progress in injury prevention and awareness. Coaches, athletes, and referees have a much clearer understanding of the long-term effects of head injuries, fatigue, and general overuse. As much as it breaks my heart to see a guy like Earl Campbell, once one of the most powerful running backs in the game who is now lucky if he doesn't need a wheelchair on the average day, I tell myself that he was one of the unfortunate casualties of a time when football and sports science were viewed as incompatible. After decades of negligence, football is finally coming to terms with the fact that no man is invincible, and medical science is important for the mental and physical health of every player. It's a shame it took so long, but I think the sport is in a much better place.
For the first time in history, team trainers and doctors have as much power as the players and coaches. If a player leaves the game with an injury and the trainer says "no," the player can't beg his way back in, nor can the coach undermine the trainer's decision to keep a player out. If the team doctor sets a clearance time for an athlete's return, it's a firm decision. Recovery can't be manipulated like in the past.
I coach high school cross country and track & field. In addition to mandatory first aid and CPR training, this year was the first season that all coaches also had to take mandatory concussion/head injury training. Bear in mind, I coach a non-contact sport, yet I still had to learn about the signs of a dangerous head injury alongside football, wrestling, basketball, baseball, and other team coaches. I am all for it. I think this is crucial for improving football and other contact sports. The current generation of NFL players includes many guys who were never warned about head injuries until now, and many of them are well into their adult years. But nowadays, we're getting the message out to the youth in all areas, so they all understand the potential dangers of the sport.
So how do I feel about football fans? I think they're perfectly fine. I don't feel like people cheer for the brutality. Most folks cringe when they see a hard hit or a knee injury. Fans get scared when a player lies unconscious on the field. If it were a gladiator sport, people would want more blood and gore. I don't get the impression that anyone wants that. Just as the people on the field have become aware of the dangers out there, the people in the bleachers have also learned that hard hits and overuse come with a heavy price tag. As awareness spreads, I think we will see a shift from the old ways of the game.
Football still has a long way to go, but in the end, I think that it's an ethical sport for players and fans.
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