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This past Saturday evening Indianapolis Colts franchise quarterback Andrew Luck hung up his cleats in the prime of his career. Not since Barry Sanders, legendary Detroit Lions running back, unexpectedly retired in 1998 has a star NFL player walked away during their most productive years.
Both aged 29, Sanders and Luck, decided that risking further injury in such a violent contact sport was not worth the potential rewards. Luck specifically noted the mental fatigue of constant rehabilitation as a major reason to call it a career. The former #1 overall pick and Heisman Trophy runner-up’s decision has opened many discussions about football, its safety, and the dedication required to play it. Unsurprisingly in 2019, warriors on all sides of the culture used Luck’s decision to attack or defend football.
As with many other issues in the culture wars, violent sports have been the site of conflict. There are legitimate medical issues involved that help to explain why many cheered on Luck’s retirement as proof that tackle football may cease to be a popular sport in the near future. It’s not a secret that football is a violent sport.
As more medical information comes to light concerning the detrimental cognitive effects of concussions, many parents are refusing to put their children in the game. Since 2009-2010, high school football enrollment has dropped 6.5%. In Canada, Football Canada recently banned tackle football for children 12 and under, attempting to reverse the same trend in declining participation. Studies show that the longer one plays tackle football, the more likely they are to suffer serious brain-related traumas. But this medical issue masks another important cultural rift regarding the appropriateness of contact or violent sports.
One Twitter exchange highlighted the competing ideals. Fox Sport 1’s @WhitlockJason has long supported Football as a positive economic ladder, especially for poor Black men who are often denied a chance to escape their economic situation. He views the constant attacks on football as symptom of the larger war on “Toxic Masculinity.” He ended up in a battle of words with independent journalist Michael Tracey regarding Luck’s retirement.
Tracey argued that Luck’s decision makes the death of football more of a reality, and our society shouldn’t embrace these types of violent sports that threaten the health of the players.
What to make of the situation? Taking a broad look reveals the important arguments on both sides of the cultural debate. Violent sports historically have been places of male bonding and testing, often taking the place of actual violence. American President Teddy Roosevelt directly intervened to save football in 1905 precisely for this reason. After 19 college players died during the 1905 season, Roosevelt summoned college presidents to the White House to tackle to situation. The solution, change the rules of the game and create a formal administrative body (NCAA) to oversee competition to ensure safety.
Roosevelt so desired to save the game precisely because it inculcated a sense of hardy masculinity it its participants. Roosevelt’s ‘Strenuous Life’ doctrine required suffering to shape character, something he personified when he resigned from his government post to raise the Rough Rider’s regiment that he led in battle during the Spanish American War in 1898. Without war, another violent crucible was needed to test men as they entered full adulthood. Similar arguments have been made regarding other violent sports such as Ice Hockey, Boxing, and Rugby.
Given football’s prime role in perpetuating a masculine ideal, it’s been in the cultural crosshairs for a long time. More information about concussions have given the anti-violent sport crowd good justification for their arguments, but Whitlock is not incorrect to state that it’s part and parcel in a larger argument concerning violent sports. All life choices come with risks. Many are drawn to danger and dangerous jobs require people with this attitude. Those who choose to play football tacitly accept the risk, similarly to a firefighter or soldier. Do we want to rob adults of being able to choose how much risk they want to take in order to satisfy aesthetic concerns regarding what sports we want to see?
A similar issue emerged in hockey concerning the role of fighting. Many people for years have wanted fighting gone from the game, mostly because of the aesthetics. They don’t like the way the game looks or is played when fighting is involved. Mostly journalists and outsiders, they have to go against the direct wishes of the players themselves who always want fighting to stay. The same occurs for football, those inside the game would rather tinker with the game to change it wholesale opposed to those on the outside who would end the sport altogether.
Importantly, those on the inside want the game to be safe, but also to retain its important dangerous elements, the balance that Teddy Roosevelt attempted to strike. So in the end, we are back to the question of what is an acceptable sport in 2019? Should we look to injury rates, especially concussions? Football is head and shoulders above the rest, but even sports like Soccer have high rates of injury and cause far more concussions that one might expect. Crucially, some studies reveal that girls sports produce similar numbers of concussions as boys sports, and girls do not play tackle football. So if it’s overall safety, the answer is clear. Don’t let your kids play any sports! But the safety-ism and helicopter parenting so en vogue in the past decades also has detrimental consequence.
No strain, no gain. This is the debate that Andrew Luck pressed the culture into with his choice. We think we argue from a scientific perspective regarding safety, but it’s mostly aesthetic. Protecting children is important, but so is preparing them for the world. It’s a difficult balance to achieve, but we don’t enjoy talking about nuance in 2019. Sport is just another arena where the battle continues to rage.