The Fight Over the Future of Football Has Become a Battle for California’s Soul

Is football so dangerous it should be outlawed?  Yet the State of California allows San Fran to give out needles to drug addicts so they can over dose and die.  I am confused does the government want you to live or die?

“To comprehend the slow but unmistakable erosion of football in California, it’s best to begin on the periphery, in the places where the impact is already being felt—places like Lowell, where last fall brought one of the toughest seasons yet. “This might be the worst year,” Chan predicted to a school newspaper reporter back in August, and it never got much better. All season, Lowell—which has a student body of more than 2,500—struggled to suit up the 18 healthy players required by the city to compete. The Cardinals won a single game, against a crosstown rival that was also struggling with its roster numbers, and the school’s principal forfeited their season finale against undefeated Lincoln High, citing safety concerns. (At the two Lowell games I attended, the cheerleaders outnumbered the football players.) The program is getting harder and harder to sustain, Chan tells me, and though there are many reasons why, he says they all circle back to one central theme: Chan feels like he’s competing not just against his own hard realities. He also feels like he’s competing against the increasingly negative public perception of the sport itself.

“It’s totally under attack. And it’s under attack because [of] biases of what football [is].” —Danny Chan, Lowell High football coach.”

With the Super Bowl and all the glitz and star power of the event to promote the sport, on a local level it is being shut down.  Will we have foot in the United States in ten years—or will professional football be forced to play in Mexico or London instead?  Sounds crazy—so does making plastic straws a crime and syringes a government hand out.

Youth Football

The Fight Over the Future of Football Has Become a Battle for California’s Soul

California has long been known as a hotbed of football talent. Yet as research into the game’s dangers has spread, politicians, advocates, and parents have clashed over how to protect youth, high school, and college athletes. What happens to a state intractably divided by sport?

By Michael Weinreb, The Ringer,  1/22/19

 

  1. The Coach

On a brilliant October afternoon in San Francisco, a high school football coach named Danny Chan watched as his varsity offense ran sets against a phantom defense composed of a couple players brandishing tackling dummies. “We’re a fringe program,” said Chan, the head coach at Lowell High, which is widely viewed as the most academically rigorous public secondary school in the city. The visuals from that day backed Chan’s contention: Gatorade bottles were stacked haphazardly in a shopping cart used to transport them to the practice field, and the varsity players took turns in the compact shed that serves as a weight room.

While the members of Lowell’s freshman-sophomore team practiced at one end of the field, Chan coached the smaller cluster of varsity players at the other. Altogether, Lowell’s varsity roster numbered 18 players, including a pair of girls, which meant offensive reps against a full defense were a luxury he could no longer afford. This shabby survivalist approach has been the reality at Lowell for decades, ever since Chan himself played football here in the late 1980s. Sometimes when Chan meets Lowell alumni and tells them he’s the school’s varsity football coach, they seem surprised that their alma mater even has a football team.

To comprehend the slow but unmistakable erosion of football in California, it’s best to begin on the periphery, in the places where the impact is already being felt—places like Lowell, where last fall brought one of the toughest seasons yet. “This might be the worst year,” Chan predicted to a school newspaper reporter back in August, and it never got much better. All season, Lowell—which has a student body of more than 2,500—struggled to suit up the 18 healthy players required by the city to compete. The Cardinals won a single game, against a crosstown rival that was also struggling with its roster numbers, and the school’s principal forfeited their season finale against undefeated Lincoln High, citing safety concerns. (At the two Lowell games I attended, the cheerleaders outnumbered the football players.) The program is getting harder and harder to sustain, Chan tells me, and though there are many reasons why, he says they all circle back to one central theme: Chan feels like he’s competing not just against his own hard realities. He also feels like he’s competing against the increasingly negative public perception of the sport itself.

“It’s totally under attack. And it’s under attack because [of] biases of what football [is].” —Danny Chan, Lowell High football coach

Chan works outside of Lowell as a private-school educator, and considers his program largely autonomous. He’s expected to operate with a limited headcount and sparse resources, so to have any hope of keeping up with traditional city powers like Lincoln (where Mike Holmgren was once both a player and coach) and Galileo (which once produced a transcendent running back named Orenthal James Simpson), he’s installed a rush-heavy offense straight out of the 1920s. The kids he gets, he says, are the “crazy and nutty ones” who aren’t afraid of taking on a near-insurmountable challenge. “I know at other schools, football is ‘the thing,’” Chan says. “Not here.”

The son of immigrants, Chan was once one of those crazy and nutty kids. Football, for him, provided a path toward assimilation. It was a quintessentially American pursuit, a sport that required sacrifice and teamwork, even if his parents didn’t fully understand its importance. But now, he says, fear has overtaken opportunity, particularly among parents who, amid a flood of headlines about brain injuries and CTE, seem especially reluctant to allow their children to play football. In 2017, Chan had a star running back who played in that fall’s first game, then said his mom didn’t want him playing football anymore. Just like that, he was gone.

Upon hearing this, I ask Chan the question that has become a kind of political litmus test in the United States, but particularly in the most progressive state in the union, a place that has historically been one of the most fertile producers of football talent.

I ask him whether he thinks football is under attack.

“Yes,” Chan says. “It’s totally under attack. And it’s under attack because [of] biases of what football [is].”

  1. The Numbers

You can find stories like Chan’s in nearly every state, as football’s place at the center of the American experience is being openly questioned. Over the past decade, high school football participation has dropped 6.6 percent nationwide, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). Much of that decline can be attributed to the violent nature of the sport, and the attention being paid to the repercussions of that violence.

The headlines made by Boston University CTE studies, Will Smith movies, and the 2012 suicide of Hall of Famer Junior Seau have intensified arguments and sowed political division about the future of football. On one side are those who say that the sport—particularly at the youth and high school levels—is inherently dangerous and deserves careful regulation, if not an outright ban. On the other are those who say this is yet another example of government overreach that represents the softening (and imminent downfall) of America. And nowhere have those politics been on starker display than in California, which has continued to produce many of the country’s best high school football players, even as it’s transformed into the bluest state of them all.

It’s not surprising that the three most populous states—California, Florida, and Texas—also traditionally churn out the highest numbers of college and professional football players. What’s intriguing is how each state’s football culture has been shaped by its overarching systems: Texas is defined by its sheer scale of talent, Florida has become the default repository for speed, and California has become an incubator for quarterbacks in progressive offenses.

And while Texas and Florida have also wrestled with decreasing participation in high school football, the numbers don’t tell quite the same story as they do in California. California had 104,224 high school football players at 1,029 schools during the 2009-10 season, according to NFHS. By 2017-18, those numbers had dropped to 94,286 players at 877 schools. Since 2015, the number of players in California has fallen by about 3 percent each year. Over that same time period, the number of participants and football-playing schools in Florida and Texas—both far redder states on the political map—have more or less held steady.

North of San Francisco, in Marin County—where Rams quarterback Jared Goff grew up—Novato High School went winless in both 2017 and 2018. Novato isn’t a “fringe program” like Lowell; it’s produced four NFL players in its six-decade history. Up in wine country, Healdsburg High dropped its team this season. Even in Southern California, a traditional recruiting hotbed, once-powerful programs are struggling to piece teams together. There is a startling consistency to the narrative: Roger Blake, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation, tells me that schools all over the state are facing these issues, regardless of demographics. It’s happening in urban areas like San Francisco and San Diego, and it’s happening in rural outposts far from the major cities. It’s happening even as California’s overall participation rates for high school sports have reached all-time highs, as participation in boys’ soccer has grown by roughly 19 percent over the last 10 years. The question now is whether there’s any hope for a football revival, or whether this is simply the new normal.

It’s too early to see an impact of those diminishing numbers on college recruiting or at the professional level, because the bottleneck from high school to college to the NFL is so narrow, says Roger Pielke Jr., head of the Sports Governance Center at the University of Colorado. There are still more than a million kids playing high school football nationwide. But Pielke’s research has revealed that America’s moment of “peak football” appears to be firmly in the past. The average high school football team has lost a total of three players since 2016 alone, and if that kind of attrition continues, it could serve as a tipping point for schools (both high schools and colleges) that either have small enrollments or place less of an institutional emphasis on football.

And while football advocates like to point out that the sport is safer than ever before, the underlying concern remains: How safe can it ever truly be? Since 2010, there have been between 12 and 18 on- and off-field football-related deaths each year at the youth, high school, and college levels, according to research by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury; those deaths are now being reported on and scrutinized more closely than ever. Combine those headlines with the long-term concerns about how football’s concussive violence might affect a young person’s brain, and it leads to an overarching sense of fear that inherently dovetails with the nature of the sport itself. As that fear spreads, and studies like the recent one led by Berkeley researchers continue to suggest that there are brain-altering dangers associated with football, social scientists like Pielke have raised larger, more existential questions. Will football soon become further divided by culture, region, and social class? Is its very existence now an intractable political wedge issue?

And is it possible that, at some critical juncture, an unabashedly progressive state like California will effectively legislate tackle football out of existence?

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About Stephen Frank

Stephen Frank is the publisher and editor of California Political News and Views. He speaks all over California and appears as a guest on several radio shows each week. He has also served as a guest host on radio talk shows. He is a fulltime political consultant.

Comments

  1. But the gaming program has a waiting list…

    Snowflakes….

  2. Statistics don’t lie. California’s annual automobile deaths are 1 out of every 8733 drivers. Annual high school deaths from hits/stroke/other, are 1 out of 31,429 players.

    A California driver is nearly 4 times as likely to die in an accident than a California high school football player.

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