Would High School Football Be Safer Without Helmets?

Players wouldn’t use their heads as weapons, the argument goes.
Shane Lemieux, a offensive tackle for the West Valley High School Rams varsity football team and 17-year-old native of Yakima, Wash., dons his helmet before a game against the Wenatchee High School Panthers at West Valley High School in Yakima, Wash., Oct. 31, 2014.
Shane Lemieux, a offensive tackle for the West Valley High School Rams varsity football team and 17-year-old native of Yakima, Wash., dons his helmet before a game against the Wenatchee High School Panthers at West Valley High School in Yakima, Wash., Oct. 31, 2014.

Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and I have a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and seek to identify common ground on some of the thorniest questions in education. I thought readers might enjoy perusing snippets of those conversations every now and then. Today, Pedro and I discuss the safety concerns of high school football along with its value for student athletes.

Noguera: I think about how many communities and cities right now put so many public resources into their football teams. I like football, but too often, such investments come at the expense of other needs. I have worked in cities where school systems are falling apart and in dire need of improvement, but city leaders don’t seem to realize that the fate of their city is much more dependent on the quality of their public schools than on an NFL football team. Too often, our priorities with respect to schools and sports are out of balance. I don’t mean to imply that sports and physical education aren’t important. I was an athlete in school and college, and I still watch sports, including football, on TV. However, I have lots of concerns about the business of sports and all of the head injuries. When athletes are impaired for life, who takes care of them? Personally, I believe that if they took away the helmets and shoulder pads, football would be safer because then it would be more like rugby (a game I played), and the players wouldn’t use their heads as weapons. I think there are things we could do to make sports safer and to take some of the money out of sports, which would make them more accessible.

Hess: On this safety question: What’s your feeling about high school football? One push is for the 7-on-7, which is kind of what you’re talking about—you get rid of the blocking, and it basically just becomes a passing game. It’s obviously a safer alternative with a lot of appeal, especially in a more safety-conscious era. On the other hand, lots of kids—and grown-ups—enjoy the intense physicality of football as it’s traditionally been played. That’s part of the joy and becomes a source of discipline, part of the formative experience, and a focused outlet for aggression. I’m curious where you tend to come down on that.

Noguera: I think football should be played more like rugby. You could still play on the big, full field. I was in New Zealand a few years ago, where they have professional rugby, and athletes are required to perform community service. They also don’t get the same number of head injuries as we do in American football. It’s still very physical, but it’s not deadly. Even now, as protections have been added to protect quarterbacks—you still see a lot of serious injuries. The careers of running backs and linemen are really short, and getting shorter. It’s partially because the game is so dangerous.

Hess: Yeah, that’s a very fair point. Last season, something like seven of the NFL’s eight best-paid running backs missed a big chunk of the season. So, I hear you on the rugby thing. I’ve always been a football guy. I love football, but the points you’re raising in regards to safety are real. And we can’t avoid or duck them when we’re talking as parents or about students. And obviously, concussions are something you’ve got to take seriously. On the other hand, I have concerns about the way football gets attacked. If you read the New Yorker or the like, every year they seem obliged to write some dismissive screed about how football’s the ugly side of the violent American nightmare, and I just don’t see it that way. When I interact with folks who’ve played football, there’s something about the discipline, something about the rigor, something about the pageantry of it that is just really beneficial for a lot of kids. I think it’s just different from playing other high school sports like basketball, baseball, or tennis. Now, that being said, part of that is we know a lot of kids have just an unbelievably misinformed sense of the odds that they’re going to make it to the NFL or NBA. And, safety aside, that’s a whole different problem in its own right.

Noguera: I do think giving kids the chance to play, to be physical, and to experience competition is an important part of healthy development. But some sports are too dangerous. Think about boxing. When I grew up, boxing was a big sport. I loved to watch boxing. Now, there is wide agreement that it’s not only corrupt but abusive. I have a feeling that football could end up being regarded in the same way if the sport doesn’t take the lead in protecting the athletes. Many parents are not willing to risk the brains of their children for the game. It’s also not just a matter of protecting them physically but also ensuring that student athletes receive an education as well. Then, they come away from school or college with skills that will benefit them throughout their lives.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Episode 8 of Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast, “School Sports.”

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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