The safety of American football is on everybody’s mind these days, and not just with coaches, players, and parents. Chris Borland’s retirement earlier this year added more fuel to the fire. When I was in Florida this spring at a Braves / Cardinals spring training game, my mom ran into an old friend from high school who was there with his grandson. We somehow got on the topic of football coaching and he expressed regret that his son had played football because of multiple concussions he suffered.
As football coaches we cannot bury our heads in the sand and ignore the escalating tension on this subject. We need to be informed and consciously involved in promoting player safety and getting smarter about how we manage safety during games and practices. But we also need to stay calm and focus on reducing panic.
Football safety has been a subject of public conversation going back to the origins of the game. Let’s go back to the early 20th century:
Within a few years, the Wedge was abolished, but the introduction of nose guards and flimsy leather helmets—both of which were optional—created illusions of safety that encouraged even more violent plays. The crowds ate it up—by the early 1890s, 40,000 fans attended the biggest games. But criticism, too, was growing. Charles Eliot, president of Harvard, became the unofficial leader of the anti-football movement. By 1895, he was calling for an outright ban.
The 1905 season turned into what the Chicago Tribune labeled a “death harvest.” Eighteen players died. Another 137 were seriously injured.
Football did have one towering supporter on its side, though: Teddy Roosevelt, a Harvard grad whom Eliot had once called “feeble.” Roosevelt espoused “muscular Christianity,” a belief that the path to a stronger spirit was a stronger body. Though he never played the game, partially due to his reliance on glasses, Roosevelt was a devoted fan.
Rather than getting out the pitchforks, public attention turned towards evolving the game and improving player safety. That was a good outcome over 100 years ago, and would be a good outcome today.
Chris Fore wrote an amazing article back in March where he reminded us to keep perspective on relative risk taking. Anecdotal examples, when held out as evidence of general truth, can begin to undermine rational thought.
In any case, you need to spend time thinking about your position on this topic and how you will engage with players and parents. You also need to dedicate at least some of your personal development each year to adopting new approaches to enhance player safety. Don’t chase every new fad, but pay attention to experts and their advice.