A million teenagers right now participate in America’s largest extracurricular fitness program for high school students. They run and wrestle, do push-ups and sit-ups, and challenge themselves beyond their perceived limits. And then they do it all over again the next day.
The rigorous activity is exactly what the United States of Obesity needs. It’s also what an increasing number of voices call to restrict.
Football is the most popular high school sport in terms of participants and spectators. It’s also the most controversial.
Coming off a season in which school board members sought to ban the sport, state legislators introduced bills to limit contact in practices, and high school participation declined for the first time in almost two decades, football seeks to regain its footing this season.
For football to burst out of its three point stance in 2013, instead of getting knocked on its behind like last year, will require a more forceful recitation of the facts to calm the frenzy.
Not a single sandlot, high school, or college player died from a football hit last season. A half century ago, collisions regularly killed two-to-three-dozen players every year. Our boys’ game plays much safer than our dads’ one did.
The media remains transfixed on head injuries. But players’ bellies and not their brains ought to worry the public most.
To the extent that the game remains a deadly one for youngsters, it’s generally the likes of heat stroke and enlarged hearts, not collisions, which kill. Obesity appears as a too-common denominator in such deaths on the gridiron.
Last season, a 320-pound high school senior collapsed on a South Carolina field during a homecoming game, dying from an enlarged heart.
In August 2009, high-blood pressure killed a 360-pound thirteen-year-old who fell to the ground while running laps during practice.
In 2010, a five-foot-eight, 300-pound high school player collapsed and died during warm-ups. Linebackers may appear more ominous than lunchboxes. But it’s the latter rather than the former that kill young athletes.
Football isn’t the cause of these tragedies. It potentially can be a cure. Double sessions, two-a-days, hell week—whatever you call those ten painful pre-season practices crammed into five days -- challenge young bodies in a way that our soft, sedentary society rarely does.
When I shadowed a high school player in Massachusetts last season, I discovered that -- because nobody walks during practice -- he ran nearly a mile just moving to the water fountain, to drills, back to the huddle, etc., independent of the organized practice activity. The movements we consider rigorous, they consider rest.
Whereas obesity afflicted one in twenty teenagers fifty years ago, it burdens almost one in five today. Kids need more sports, not less.
Basketball, soccer, hockey, lacrosse, and yes, football, provide something that video games do not. The gridiron, because of the advantages it gives to bulk and brawn, can play an especially constructive role getting bigger kids off the couch and into cleats.
Of course, every human activity carries risk.
August’s on-ice death of a sixteen-year-old Canadian hockey prospect and July’s death of an eight-year-old hit by a ball during baseball practice highlight the dangers of otherwise beneficial pastimes. But the most dangerous activity for children is inactivity.
The misplaced emphasis on the roughness of football isn’t just wrong. It is decades late.
The concern doesn’t reflect the sport played in 2013. The ancient game inherits a modern problem: widespread obesity. That, rather than head injuries, primarily threatens players.
America doesn’t have a football problem. Football has an all-too American problem.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of "The War on Football: Saving America's Game" (Regnery 2013).