The future of football

On schoolyard blacktops and makeshift football fields with sidelines ill-defined, little boys dream of glory. They juke and scramble, pass and punt, all the while imagining the future, the day when it is real — when two-hand touch is replaced by that rugged word: tackle.

Boys want a uniform, the helmet, gloves, pads — armor. But do they wish to be gladiators, sacrificing the future life of body and mind for the brief glory of physical combat, for the pleasure of a crowd?

Pain is a marker. Countless ancient cultures’ initiation rituals contained some measure of pain: tattooing, mutilation, branding, scarring. Pain is a test, but we’re usually promised that it is transient — this, too, shall pass.

Perhaps without some pain football loses meaning. But as we’ve learned in recent years, some injuries and scars do not fade … they’re not like the pains endured in ancient rites of passage.

Do boys dream of being Roman gladiators, slaves to others’ entertainment, trading one’s body and (as we’ve learned) one’s mind for fleeting fortune (unlikely) and fame (even less likely)? Or do they dream of great deeds, Olympian glory, the cynically dismissed noble forge of competition and surpassing one’s limitations, briefly, on a great stage?

I think it’s the latter, but if no changes are made to football, it may become the former — a gladiatorial spectacle of those whose parents saw no other options for their children. Those in the stands watching the spectacle will be the privileged many, without any need to sacrifice their lives — mental or physical — on some white-lined field.

The intangibles that help make a boy into a man can be learned in few compartments of life. The ancients understood this. Sometimes the lessons that need to be learned can only be found on a field. Those lessons may be rarely learned, but they will vanish completely if the only football players left are those who had to play. The souls of volunteers are different from those of conscripts.

What can be done?

Some have suggested softer helmets, or at least helmets with soft exteriors to deaden the impacts of collisions. Others say that we should reduce the size of teams to 15 or 20 players. Fewer players would mean football would test endurance, not just speed and power. Maybe the field needs to be larger, or smaller. Perhaps football needs to adopt some of the tackling techniques of rugby. Maybe we need a series of rule changes, similar to the ones that helped save football from being banned a century ago, when college athletes were dying by the dozen. The forward pass was once unthinkable, a heresy certain to soften the game and strip it of its toughness-making value, but a hundred years later nearly everyone would agree that the forward pass transformed the game for the better.

Or (and this is entirely possible) maybe I’m wrong. Nothing else can be done to the game without diminishment and there’s not enough appetite for change. Maybe the recent decline in youth and high-school football participation is temporary and we should carry on as we have, making the risks even more widely known. As they long have, parents will debate the dangers of their sons’ athletic pursuits. As they always have, a large subset of boys and young men will acknowledge bodily risk and damn the torpedoes, for reasons so obvious that they don’t even need stating.

Football is a boys’ game — on Sundays played by men. To a boy, scars are medals. Casts and crutches can make heroes. War stories. So perhaps there is a limit to the changes to the game that can be tolerated. The risks may be the real game, like walking along railroad tracks or jumping out of trees. At its core, football is the simplest of games invented by boys: Get the guy with the ball. Nothing else matters.

This piece originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News as an opinion column.