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Safety concerns are threatening football at its roots

by J.W. Miller on 08/09/18

When I was a pup, I played baseball and football at Shelby County High School in Kentucky. Our athletic teams were members of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) and placed in the appropriate districts and regions for interscholastic competition. One of our 8th Region rivals was Trimble County High School, located about 34 miles north of us, on the Ohio River. Only 8,600 residents were counted in the most recent census of Trimble County, most living in rural areas, the county seat of Bedford or the village of Locust. The population of Barebone was listed as zero, owing to its official census designation as a “ghost town.” 

I bring up Trimble County because of a story this week in the Lexington Herald-Leader that announced Trimble County High School has cancelled its upcoming football season because only nine boys showed up for the first practice. Students and parents expressed outrage on social media and held an emergency public meeting last weekend, and on Monday 24 boys showed up declaring they wished to play and save Trimble County football. The principal, however, declared that the effort was too little, too late. Five of the boys had never played football before and another five were freshman or sophomores. That made it a safety issue, both for the students and scheduled opponents, and the KHSAA agreed. 

This situation might be understandable when looking at the county’s small population and the high school’s enrollment at 360 for grades 9-12. But I wonder how much of the apparent lack of interest stems from safety concerns by parents or the students themselves who are watching the NFL and NCAA grapple with the issue? With students today having multiple and safer options for their spare time, football has been thrust to the bottom of the pile. You can easily read the Trimble County situation as a ripple from the NFL’s ongoing conversation about player safety. 

After the Pro Football Hall of Fame game last weekend, the drums began beating louder about the new rule aimed at protecting players by discouraging them from leading with their helmets on blocks or tackles. The pre-season schedule has not even begun for 30 teams, but already the rule has been the focus of exasperation from players and coaches alike. Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal termed this backlash “a peculiar reality” for the NFL. 

By committing an estimated billion dollars to an ongoing settlement with former players over neurocognitive issues, the NFL has sparked concerns at the youth levels of the sport. The NFL has taken various steps over the years to fund research, strengthen safety protocols and tweak the rulebook, but this latest rule change is among the strongest measures affecting how the game is played. The reaction has been severe, including from those for whom the rule is intending to protect. Outspoken Cornerback Richard Sherman said if the penalty is called too much, it could “ruin the game.” 

So what if the new rules do, as Sherman suggests, change football forever? If it results in fewer serious injuries or long-term neurocognitive issues, it would be worth it. Football is not going away, but the dribble-down effect of the discussion could be that parents and young athletes just don’t want to go there any more. Like in Trimble County. 

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