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Football can’t be afraid of change


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We’re scared of football.

It is one of the reasons it is so popular.

As a society, we like to take chances. It is why kids don’t just ride bicycles, they build jumps so they can soar over them. Sometimes they fall, ouch!

We don’t just swim in a river, we jump off a tree limb into the water. We hang glide and jump out of airplanes. We surf the big wave, and we do flips on water skis.

Falling, perhaps in a twisted American way, is part of the fun. Our bodies go snap, crackle, pop, and we come back for more.

At least we always did.

As a society, we are smarter now. Does that equate to being not very tough? You be the judge.

Football has been this country’s version of the Roman gladiators. It carries the spectacle of boxing at a much higher speed. It is a car crash without the car. It is blood and guts, just not ours.

It likely is responsible for televisions swelling to more than double the screen size.

I doubt our televisions are going to shrink, but football is in trouble.

The number of kids who are playing youth football in this country is shrinking. According to an ESPN study, almost 10 percent for a three-year period through 2012. Other studies draw similar conclusions. Here in Columbus, the Police Athletic Activities League football program has seen its numbers decrease across the board in every age group.

The main reason is the one that draws us to football ... fear.

The public has been bombarded with information about concussions the past five years, most certainly information that was well overdue. Throw in deaths related to heat, knee injuries and all the other bumps suffered in a contact sport, and football suddenly has become the black plague.

Is it all overblown? Sure. But it is hitting us so hard because everyone ignored it for so long.

From personal experience, I never participated in anything so rewarding, so character-building, so exciting as high school football. Of every experience through my school days, football was No. 1. Nothing else was close.

But we have been poor custodians of the sport. When everyone started thinking of a helmet as a weapon, we collectively looked the other way. When guys were torn up, we kept sending them out on the field.

This mostly happened at the highest levels, pro and college, but it created a bad image. When people see a 60-year-old man ravaged by football, we don’t pay attention that he spent 25 years in the game. We don’t separate that from Pop Warner.

I am sure that grates on youth coaches who see their sport as a tremendously safe sport for kids. Here’s the deal, though. Tough darts.

It’s time for the football community to educate us. If football is, indeed, a safe sport, explain why.

I know PAAL Football here locally is taking major steps, such as joining USA Football, which leads the way in terms of providing a safe environment for kids. We now have a basic safety coach who is assigned to keep an idea on each team, their training methods and practices. We have new, much safer equipment.

But ever try to talk to someone who is scared of the water into swimming?

My advice to football in general would contain three main initiatives.

One: Organize representatives of the local youth football league and send them into the community, explaining why their league is a safe environment that is rewarding for kids. Go door-to-door if necessary, but get the information out.

Two: Find a way to keep football fun. Have you seen a 10th grade football player lately walking around without his shirt on? These kids have muscles now that never used to appear on the human body until ... well ... maybe never.

When I was a kid, way back when, football was about fun. If you are going to work kids like they are on the chain gang, make sure they love whatever workout they are doing. If you don’t make it fun, don’t be surprised if the pool of athletes continues to get smaller.

Three: Get the NFL on board. If you’ve been to an NFL game, how many kids do you see in the crowd? Have we priced out the future of football?

Sure, football is a television sport, but think how magical a trip to a Major League Baseball park was when you were a kid? That kind of good will is needed now.

These things will take a lot of effort, but it needs to be done. Don’t be scared.

Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at jheater@therepublic.com or 379-5632.

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