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Saturday, Mar 2, 2024

An Old Game in Modern Times

Unless you’ve played football, it’s hard to understand the pure visceral enjoyment of the game. I grew up in an era, way back in the ‘70s, when young kids and even teenagers spent their afternoons not in front of computer screens, but outdoors in the backyard getting bruised after school. Forget touch, we played tackle. To this day, I still remember one particular hit against a girl a few grades older and definitely bigger than me. She had joined our pickup game and had run the ball a few yards before someone slowed her down. I went flying in, knocked her down with a chest-first tackle and finished off the play. I was fine and so was she. What a thrill. It would have been even better with shoulder pads – something which my friends and I always wanted but that no one got in those days. We just learned to tackle in ways that may have resulted in bruises but avoided broken bones and dislocated shoulders. Still, I have to admit, I’m amazed no one broke their neck. Eventually, though, one kid in my neighborhood did get a concussion. His mom forced him to wear a helmet, which we all perceived as downright dangerous lest we get our heads clobbered, so most of us convinced our parents to get us one too. Looking around these days in my Burbank neighborhood, where I’ve lived well over a decade, I can’t remember seeing any kids on the street or front lawns playing touch, much less tackle, which is too bad considering how much fun it is. However, when I used to run around the high school football track, I was amazed at the discipline of the local Pee Wee football team, all decked out in gear and uniforms that I and my friends would have died for. Yet, as reporter Stephanie Forshee points out in the page one article on the troubles of BRG Sports’ Riddell football business, parents are getting queasy these days about letting their kids play organized football at a young age. And who can blame them? With all we know about the effects of concussions among the pros, who would want to expose their kids to such dangers? After all, most parents won’t even let their kids bike on the sidewalk without padding guaranteed to eliminate the possibility of even a scratch. The NFL and organized youth leagues have responded to the concerns with a program called Heads Up football, which trains players not to lead with their helmets but to tackle with their arms and bodies, something that was instinctive to kids in my childhood with our lack of protection. Of course, anyone who watches football in the fall knows that eradicating head-first hits – which is called spearing and will draw a penalty – is difficult, given the crazy collisions that result when 22 men line up on either side of the line of scrimmage and go at each other for dozens of plays a game. Helmet makers such as Riddell have responded with advances intended to better protect players. Most recently, the company has developed helmet sensors and telemetry that will allow coaches to know when a player has taken too many hits or too big a hit to the head. And longtime fans will tell you that today’s football players are bigger, faster and stronger than in decades past – given advances in nutrition and conditioning – so the impacts can be frightening. We’ve all seen plays that make us wince, and often they are unavoidable. So what to do about a game that has replaced baseball as America’s favorite pastime, a game that translates so well on TV and has been marketed so well by the NFL that it even captures the attention of kids who otherwise might be zapping electronic monsters? I’m not sure anyone has the answers. Some are warning it will go the way of boxing, a violent sport now much less popular. After all, don’t forget that football was developed in the late 1800s when the frontier had only recently closed and the dangers of football were relatively laughable. Others say we should ditch the helmets, or at least the face masks, which would prompt players to instinctively avoid head contact. But if you’ve ever taken a look at the flattened noses of football players from the 1930s or 1940s, I’m not sure that would go over too well with the players’ union. So, ironically, here we are with players decked out in the latest in light super-strong protective gear drawing upon the latest advances in plastics and electronics, yet the danger hasn’t diminished much. So, in our litigious society, Riddell is facing the inevitable lawsuits from injured players and parents who may have forgotten how dangerous it all is. I’m not sure anyone has any answers to this conundrum. So, I guess for now, I’m just going to count the days till kickoff, buy my beer and chips and get ready for the Sunday mayhem that is our national obsession. What else am I supposed to do? Go out and play a pickup game of tackle with the kids? That sounds way too dangerous. Laurence Darmiento is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at editor@sfvbj.com.

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