Lacking helmets and pads, we as children played a naturally protective form of football. We blocked, and we tackled the ball-carrier, but we had to do both in ways that avoided serious injury to ourselves. In the process, we avoided seriously injuring our opponent. There were lots of bruises and skinned knees and elbows, and even the occasional sprain, but each of the parties to the transaction was equally likely to suffer, and so each exercised a measure of restraint.
Today, however, we confront irrefutable scientific proof of the devastating effects of playing football organized at the high school and college levels, and even in Pop Warner leagues, to say nothing of the pros. The use of high-tech padding, and helmets with visors, has created a false sense of invulnerability, the feeling that one would neither injure the adversary, nor suffer injury oneself, in what appeared to an outside observer to be a bone-jarring collision.
In fact, the significant injuries were not to the bones, which normally heal uneventfully, but, ironically, to an organ encased in bone: the brain. With each passing revelation from medical science, it now becomes more difficult to deny or ignore the grave risk of profound damage to the brain resulting from the numerous concussions endured by players, even just in practice, and even at the high school level, to say nothing of college and professional football.
Sooner or later, we can expect wise parents, whose aspirations for their children include lives and careers which require an unimpaired brain, to start forbidding their children to participate. In living rooms and around dining room tables across the country, especially (but not exclusively) in the South, this is not going to be a peaceful discussion. But faced with the possibility of their child being forced to drop out in the middle of the third year of medical school, many parents are going to make the tough call.
I contend that all is not lost. An election year in which demonizing all things European seems to be about the only talking point some politicians are able to find is probably not the best time for this discussion, but European football, here known as soccer, may be the saving alternative.
Some things to consider:
A. Soccer is much better exercise than football, and one must be in much better shape to play. This is for several reasons.
First, the soccer field is between 65% and 90% larger than a football field, and all of it is in constant use. Players must therefore run much farther than in football, where 100 yards is the theoretical maximum.
Second, soccer games are 90 minutes long, as opposed to 60 minutes in football.
Third, soccer is played continuously. Everyone runs up and down the field, in more or less constant motion, for 45 minutes. The clock does not stop for injuries, substitutions, or when the ball changes hands. (The only brief respite for players comes when one of the rare - and rarely serious - injuries requires the trainers to examine the injured player, who then normally gets up and resumes play.) Then, following a 15 minute half-time intermission, there ensues another 45 minutes of uninterrupted play.
In football, by contrast, a play is run, lasting between 3 and perhaps 10 or 12 seconds, following which everyone stands around and rests and holds a meeting for 25 seconds.
Third, every player in soccer must "cover the field." By contrast, there are positions in American foot in which the longest run the player makes is the one from the locker room out onto the field at the beginning of the game. Typically, a defensive tackle's activity is not radically different from that of a Sumo wrestler. While backs, receivers and defensive ends will run numerous sprints in the course of the game (interspersed with the above-mentioned huddles), linemen often take only a few steps per play all game long.
B. Soccer requires all players to have more skills than does football. This is because the players' positions are far more specialized in football than in soccer. A lineman in football need not be particularly adept at passing the ball, receiving a pass, handing off the football, or functioning in the open field. Unless he is fortunate enough to recover a fumble, he will never touch the ball during regulation play. Kickers are seldom on the field except to kick, and even then the punter is often not the same person as the field goal kicker or the kick-off specialist.
All members of a soccer team, on the other hand, must be able to move the ball in the open field, protect it from opposing players, pass to and receive passes from teammates, attempt to steal the ball from opponents and, if the opportunity presents itself, shoot a goal.
C. Soccer discourages obesity. "Bulking up" is encouraged for at least five of the eleven positions in football. A 350-lb lineman is obviously more formidable, all other things being equal, than a 280-lb adversary. As the potential rewards of playing the game (such as college "scholarships," and lucrative professional contracts) increase, so does the temptation to place immediate playing advantage above ultimate physical health. In soccer, there is no advantage to extra bulk, and the prospect of carrying it up and down the field for 45 minutes may be sufficient motivation to pass up the extra French fries.
D. The cost of mounting a soccer program is vastly less than for a football program. A field marked with paint, two goals made of PVC pipe and some netting, shin guards, shoes, shirts and shorts, and you are ready to go. In the present recessionary climate, when even teachers of essential substantive courses are being laid off, such cost savings may begin to appeal to school boards eager to avoid liability for graduating brain-impaired students.
E. Truly comparable programs in soccer for men and women are quite feasible. In an age when discrimination, even entirely rational discrimination, is widely held to be in questionable taste, it will be cheaper and easier simply to mount equivalent men's and women's programs in soccer than to constantly justify enormous expenditures on men's football by pointing to TV revenues it generates.
In summary, it may be possible to read something into two current trends. First, some efforts have been made in recent years to interest the Europeans and the British in American football. These have not been entirely unsuccessful, but it remains something of a curiousity, and can be said to be catching on, if at all, only quite gradually. Meanwhile, the popularity of soccer the world over is well known.
Second, soccer seems to be gaining popularity in America at a much higher rate. It can be played inexpensively, girls and boys (or men and women) can both participate, the risks of injury are trivial by comparison, and it is better exercise.
About the only problem will be this: it will be fiendishly difficult to figure out how to profitably extract TV revenues from soccer. No commercial network is likely to be eager to broadcast 45 minutes of interrupted play (twice in the same night!) in return for airing 15 minutes of ads all at one time. Perhaps the rules will have to be modified to install some 60-second time-outs during each half, or perhaps games can be video-taped, and then aired with cut-ins for ads. Given the ingenuity of American broadcasters and cable operators, I'm betting that they will find a way.