EDITORIAL: Loving and leaving the game of football

1 Chicago

Chicago News & Search

1 News - 1 eMovies - 1 eMusic - 1 eBooks - 1 Search

Ten years after he was branded a felon for running an interstate dogfighting ring, former NFL quarterback Michael Vick has landed a new job. Not everyone is OK with it.

An online petition that has collected more than 74,000 signatures is calling on Fox Sports to fire Vick, less than a week after the network announced his hiring as a studio analyst for NFL coverage.

Let it go. Vick’s crime was appalling, but he did his time, serving 21 months in prison, and moved on. The rest of us should, too.

A much bigger question for Vick and football’s supporters, including fans, is whether they can continue to be at ease about a sport that thrives on hits and tackles that can, over time, lead to brain damage.


Increasingly, parents and kids are not OK with it. In August, the Park District of Highland Park canceled its youth football program for fifth through eighth graders because only 11 kids signed up, compared with 54 who joined two years ago and 33 last year. At one time, the program had 150 kids.

Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick, who spent the summer working as a coaching intern with the Kansas City Chiefs, will be a Fox Sports football analyst. | Charlie Riedel/AP

In Illinois last year, 42,682 high school students went out for football, compared with more than 51,000 in 2007 and 2008. Nationally, almost 26,000 fewer high school students signed up for football in 2016-2017 than the previous school year.

In recent years, a handful of professional players have retired in the prime of their careers over concerns about head injuries. Most were in their 20s.

John Urschel, 26, a Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman who suffered a concussion two years ago, abruptly retired last month. Urschel is a math whiz who will focus on his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He did not cite head trauma as a reason for leaving football, but his departure came two days after the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that a study of brains in 111 deceased former NFL players found 110 had the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The realities of head injuries could make the spectacularly marketed game of football tougher for people to watch. A powerful hit that flattens a player loses its thrill factor when the people watching realize the player could suffer lifelong impairment.

A case in point: Longtime ESPN college football analyst Ed Cunningham told the New York Times he resigned in the spring partly because of concern about head injuries.

“I don’t want to get too dramatic but [there are] metaphors for life,” Bears Chairman  George McCaskey said of football in a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board in 2015. “Picking yourself up when you get knocked down, never giving up.” | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“In its current state, there are some real dangers: broken limbs, wear and tear,” Cunningham told the Times. “But the real crux of this is that I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it’s unacceptable.”

Cunningham is acutely aware of the toll football can take on players. Two of his former pro teammates with the Phoenix Cardinals — Dave Duerson and Andre Waters — killed themselves and were found to have diseased brains.

A breaking point for Cunningham came in December when he was broadcasting a holiday bowl game between Iowa and Florida. Iowa was getting crushed 30-3 but Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz kept his battered 23-year-old quarterback, C.J. Beathard, in the game until the last two minutes.

“These are just kids,” Cunningham said.

With paydays on the line, coaches, team owners and NFL executives have a conflict of interest in deciding whether players should suit up. Many blur the lines of good judgment.

But it’s not just about money. Generations of Americans have been raised to keep a stiff upper lip no matter the pain. You do whatever it takes to help your team, including sacrificing your body. And in the NFL, if you can’t play, you can lose pay.

Two years ago, this editorial page found itself agreeing with Bears Chairman George H. McCaskey when he told us: “Ours is the greatest game. The combination of speed, finesse, strategy, teamwork. You’ll see it in a 60-minute game. I don’t want to get too dramatic but [there are] metaphors for life: Picking yourself up when you get knocked down, never giving up.”

What went unsaid was that for many fans, the hits and tackles are a big part of what makes the game great. There’s a gut-level thrill in the game’s physical toughness, and the NFL can’t survive without it.

But Michael Vick, coaches, parents, players and weekend fans all have to ask themselves: Are you comfortable with growing evidence of the game’s long-term dangers? For many, the answer is “not anymore.”

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com

1 Chicago

Chicago News & Search

1 News - 1 eMovies - 1 eMusic - 1 eBooks - 1 Search

Leave a Reply