Tonight kicks off the 2017 high school football season in Ohio. All across the state, players have been busy training, conditioning, and practicing throughout the summer and after school in preparation for their big moment under the Friday night lights. Football is a unique sport for many reasons. The helmets and shoulder pads promote a kind of anonymity where the players lose their individuality amidst the sea of other helmets in a more dynamic way than other sports. The game is more intricate and complicated than even many seasoned fans realize. It requires hard work and physicality that is largely absent from the lives of many young people. Football requires much more time in practice than in games compared to other sports. For this reason and others, football is a consummate team sport.
Obviously, football in the United States is undergoing a great deal of scrutiny — and understandably so. Research regarding the effects of head trauma in young athletes coupled with several high profile injuries in college and the NFL have brought about important attention and changes to the way the game is played. Rules are being altered and the way the game is coached and officiated is evolving. Hopefully these changes can continue to help make the game safer and the experience more rewarding for those involved.
All this attention has led some alarmists to proclaim the imminent demise of American football. It is impossible to predict the future, but it does seem (as noted by the dip in youth league participation), that football’s popularity may be beginning to peak. Ohio remains the cradle of American football and, regardless of the broader trajectory the sport may be on, it will be some time before it is dethroned as the most popular sport here. According to the 2016-2017 National Federation of High School Associations, football remains by far the most popular sport among male high school athletes throughout the country. All that brings me back to the games tonight.
While player safety is of utmost importance, what is often overlooked in the discussions of making football better is our tendency to dehumanize the participants. Adorned in helmets and shoulder pads, the players look more like video game caricatures than high school students. As we cheer for our team and jeer the other team, it’s easy to forget that those players have names and families. We mustn’t let their helmets and shoulder pads hide their humanity. On any given Friday, there are players on the field who are unsure of their parents’ love for them, who are facing a sexual identity crisis, who just broke up with their girlfriend, who are searching for acceptance through their performance, who are falling in love with alcohol or drugs, or who just had a genuinely bad day at school.
In the same vein, those coaches who you are questioning have given up time with their families to invest in the lives of their players. They know more about their team and about the sport than you do. While we’re at it — those black-and-white striped officials managing the game (of which I happen to be one) are people too. From time to time they blow a call or miss a foul, but they also give up time with their families to come be yelled at by you. Who knows what their day was like, and do you really know the rules better? Rushing from work to the Friday night football game all for $65 is more of a public service than a side job.
We must continue to make football safer for everyone to play. However, in our efforts to do so, let’s also be reminded that as we are immersed in this contrived world of first downs, touch downs, and fourth quarters, the people taking part are … well … people.