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Monday Night Football. Super Bowl Sunday. The big homecoming day game. New Year’s college bowls. It’s hard to imagine a sport more American than football. The game hasn’t been embraced anywhere in the world quite like it has in the United States. Gregg Easterbrook, author of the new book, “King of Sports,” says without football “there would still be 50 stars on the flag … but America wouldn’t be quite the same.” But Easterbrook argues the game is in serious need of reform at all levels. Diane discusses football’s impact on America and what it will take to clean up the sport.
- Gregg Easterbrook Author, "The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America". He is a contributing editor of "The Atlantic Monthly" and "The Washington Monthly", and a columnist for ESPN.com.
Read An Excerpt
From “The King Of Sports” by Gregg Easterbrook. Copyright © 2013 by Gregg Easterbrook. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Those who say leave football exactly as it is are in effect saying football on a path to abolition. The warning comes from journalist Gregg Easterbrook in his latest book titled "The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America." He explores how football has thrived in the U.S. and offers many reasons as to why football needs to clean up its act. Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor at The Atlantic magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.
MS. DIANE REHMThroughout the hour, we welcome your calls, comments. I know many of you are football fans. I want to hear what you have to say. Call us on 800-433-8850, send us an email to email@example.com, follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Welcome, Gregg, good to have you here.
MR. GREGG EASTERBROOKIt's nice to be back, Diane.
REHMThank you. And, you know, we should say up front, you're a football fan. You've actually coached, your kids have played football, but you have some real problems with the game.
EASTERBROOKYes. I've played and coached at a modest level. I am better at writing than I am at performing or coaching football, but I have some familiarity with the game. I like it a lot. I think football's a fantastic sport. I've been to way too many football games in my life, and I suspect I have way too many in my future. Well played, it's tremendous. But you can like something and also be aware that it has deep-seated problems that require reform, and football is like that.
EASTERBROOKWhether its affect on education, the health and safety issues, public subsidies to both the NFL and college football, football needs very serious comprehensive reform while there's still time, in my view.
REHMWhy do you think we're hearing more and more about this now?
EASTERBROOKWell, popularity of football keeps rising. It's always been a popular sport for more than a century, but the last 20 years especially, ratings, attendance, et cetera, they're all up. The number of high schools and youth teams that are playing are all up. Total number of boys involved, everything is up. And, of course, the money is really way up. So in our society, when money flows, people respond.
REHMBut at the same time, injuries seem to be up and more serious. Education problems are also in there. Do you think that eventually football might be abolished?
EASTERBROOKI hope not because I like the game. I think it needs to be reformed. If you dial back your brain to what professional boxing was a century, maybe 70, 80 years ago, much more popular than it is today, far more people involved. A sense arose that professional boxing was brutal, and many people refused to patronize it. Well, professional boxing still exists, but it now involves far fewer people than it once did, and the people who follow it have specialized tastes, if taste they have. So I think the same succession of events could happen to football unless it's comprehensively reformed.
REHMIt's interesting. You say there are similarities between football and America's workplace. What do you mean?
EASTERBROOKWell, one of the questions I ask in the book "The King of Sports," is why is America the only country where gridiron-style football is the number one sport? Certainly nowhere else in the world, even in Canada which plays the same basic style of football, ice hockey is king. So what is it about football that makes it so popular here? One, I think, America's the only place that could pull it off. Football is the loudest, biggest, most expensive, most complicated of all sports, and what is the United States? That's what we are.
EASTERBROOKWe're the country that went to the moon. We're the only country that could field hundreds of football teams. But football is also structured like a workplace. Football is a teamwork sport, unlike, say, basketball, baseball, where the individual player's statistics matter a lot. In football, yes, there are fantasy leagues, but the success of the team is what matters. You've got to follow instructions for a football game to work. There's just no other way. Even if you know the coach just called the wrong play, you've got to run that play or fiasco awaits for everyone.
REHMI thought it was interesting for me to learn that this is not the first time that people have called for reform in this sport. It goes back to 1905.
EASTERBROOK1905, yes. At that time, football was played mainly at the elite college level. That was before the big expansion of public universities that occurred after World War II. And of course, there were no professional football leagues to speak of, and most high schools didn't play. So the powerhouse teams of college football in 1905 were Harvard, Yale, Princeton, University of Chicago. There were 18 deaths in college football games in 1905.
REHMWhat kinds of helmets were they wearing at the time?
EASTERBROOKWell, if you consider them helmets. You had a little bit of leather over your head. You might as well have had...
REHMThat's what I thought.
EASTERBROOK...tin foil on your head.
EASTERBROOKAnd the game was played in a different way tactically, and every game led to broken noses, broken ribs, broken arms, blood on people's faces, et cetera. And the public felt this was barbaric. And Theodore Roosevelt who was then president and a big advocate of the strenuous life as he memorably called it, he wanted football preserved, but he knew that it had to be reformed. So he called the leaders of the football establishment, which at that time was the ivy league, to the White House and strong armed them to reform.
EASTERBROOKI would like to see Barack Obama do the same thing today with the leaders of the NFL, the NCAA, and you could have high school representatives because that's where most football is played today unlike a century ago. I'd like to see President Obama take the lead. He has said that he would wonder if he had sons if he would allow them to play football. Well, there's four million boys playing youth and high school football right now. Those are all people's sons. I think he could help them by leading a charge to reform the sport.
REHMWhat kinds of reforms did Teddy Roosevelt put in back then?
EASTERBROOKChanged the structure of the game, legalized the forward pass. We take that for granted today, but at that time the pass wasn't legal, so every play was brutal man against man calamity, and now there's less of that. That was the main change. It also led to a series of equipment reforms, and eventually that White House meeting led to the creation of the NCAA which, at that time, was a reform organization. Now it's a guardian of the status quo, but originally it was reformist.
EASTERBROOKSo it was mainly changes in the structure of the rules.
REHMTalk about the NFL. I was surprised to learn it's a nonprofit organization.
EASTERBROOKWell, Diane, that's because it's involved solely on charitable endeavors to improve the public. People don't believe this when I tell them this, but NFL headquarters, 345 Park Avenue in New York City, a gleaming structure, you think you're in the Goldman Sachs building, is organized as a not-for-profit entity and pays no taxes. That's just headquarters. The individual teams, we think they pay corporate income taxes, but we don't know because they don't disclose anything.
EASTERBROOKThey receive public subsidies and disclose no data about their finances. But we now that not-for-profit certification forces NFL headquarters to disclose its data. Last year Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, was paid $30 million, and on paper he runs a charity. He's benefiting the public by his service.
REHMHow could the NFL have originally been structured as a nonprofit?
EASTERBROOKIt wasn't originally. Originally it was a profit-making business. And then they realized that being on the dole is much more attractive, and Congress passed two pieces of legislation, 1961 and 1966, and various favors to the NFL. The most important was antitrust exemption. Imagine what Apple would pay to be exempt from antitrust law. But another little favor that was slipped into the 1966 bill, the essence of the lobbyists art is the apparently obscure phrase that has great consequences.
EASTERBROOKSo into the Tax Code's definition of a not-for-profit entity, was slipped a phrase professional football leagues, which made NFL headquarters a not for profit, which it's been since, costing the taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars.
REHMAnd what about the stadiums around the country?
EASTERBROOKWell, that's a separate matter. In most cases stadiums are built by state, local, or county agencies.
REHMBut again, the taxpayer is on the hook for those.
EASTERBROOKAbout 70 percent of the cost of NFL stadia around the country has been paid for by taxpayers, yet the owners of the teams keep almost all of the revenue. Taxpayers front the money, the profit is privatized. It's a problem throughout our economy, but it's a problem that's endemic in football.
REHMSo clearly the rich have figured out a way to make sure they keep most of their money.
EASTERBROOKOh, other than owning Fort Knox or your own personal printing press, an NFL franchise is an license to print money at the public's expense.
REHMYou know, I don't understand how the NFL maintains that not-for-profit tax status.
EASTERBROOKThat's a good question. I would blame politicians for that. I would like to say that Roger Goodell or the owners would be ethical people and try to serve the public but, you know, I'm not Pollyanna. That's not going to occur. Politicians, either at the national or state level should change the laws. We know that businessmen and businesswomen will get away with whatever they can get away with, and as long as politicians allow the NFL to get away with this stuff, it will continue.
REHMSo payment in lieu of taxes assures that taxes on small businesses and average households are much higher than taxes on an NFL stadium.
EASTERBROOKIsn't that a wonderful phrase? Payment in lieu of taxes. Imagine if you called the IRS and said this year I'd like to make a payment in lieu of taxes. Imagine the reception that you would get. Almost all NFL stadia make payments in lieu of taxes on property taxes. The Super Bowl this year will be played in New Jersey at the gleaming and beautiful new stadium where the Giants and Jets play. If that stadium was taxed at the same rate as homeowners in the same county, the annual tax would be about $20 million a year.
EASTERBROOKThe Jets and Giants negotiated a payment with the local county authority, so they only pay $6 million a year. So they are paying something, but they're paying about a third of what they should.
REHMGregg, it's pretty outrageous what you hear just about the money. We're gonna turn to the other issues about the people themselves who are playing the game and what happens to them, but do you think the American people know enough about the money involved?
EASTERBROOKNo. I don't think they do. And when I say that, for instance, the NFL should pay taxes, I don't like taxes, you don't like taxes, nobody likes taxes. But if the rich don't pay their fair share, average people have to pay more.
REHMThe book is titled "The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America." Greg Easterbrook is the author. He's also the author of "Tuesday Morning Quarterback."
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Gregg Easterbrook is with me. He is a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Monthly. As a matter of fact, your book, I see, is dedicated to a dear friend Charlie Peters...
REHM...great editor, great journalist. And his new book -- Gregg Easterbrook's new book is titled, "The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America." Frank in Bedford, N.H. writes, "This scandal is a fabulous topic for "60 Minutes" to devote an entire hour to. Of course, CBS and all the other networks earn enormous profits from NFL and big college football broadcasts. So Americans will not be seeing CBS, "60 Minutes," or any other network devoting one second to highlighting the scam the NFL and its teams are running against the American taxpayer."
REHMWell, I'm happy to say that NPR on "All Things Considered" did do a piece with you. And here you are on the worldwide program, "The Diane Rehm Show," so I'm glad to have you her. Let's talk about an issue that has really come to light in the last few years certainly, and that is the issue of injury to those who play football. And the injury is not just in the moment. The injury may be lifelong.
EASTERBROOKYes. Concussions and neurological damage, if you think about the things that athletes face, there's been a lot of progress in orthopedic care. Orthopedic injuries are less traumatic than they once were. There's been no progress at all in neurological care. All you can do for a neurological injury is wait and hope that it heals. And so concussions have come out of the closet. Maybe this is because they were taboo in the past. I think the change in the style of the game has increased the incidence of concussions.
EASTERBROOKBut the key point that I'll make is nobody wants an NFL player to get a concussion. But there's only 2,000 NFL players. Almost all football concussions happen at the youth and high school levels 'cause that's where football is played. The concussions are happening to people who legally are children. We've got 3 million youth tackle football players, 1.1 million youth high school players, almost all boys. There's a few girls, but they're almost all boys.
EASTERBROOKAnd it looks like 50- to 60,000 concussions per year in high school. Youth is more speculated because of more kids involved. It used to -- and I say used to as recently as five years ago -- it was assumed that impact in youth football, because it's little kids, 10-, 11-year-old ankle biter...
EASTERBROOKYeah. Well, it turns out that's not true. Virginia Tech researchers have put accelerometers into the helmets of youth league players and found that it's common for them to sustain impacts of the same velocity that a college or even NFL player would sustain. And so the key other thing that we've learned about neurological harm is it's not just that spectacular knockout hit that gets on sports center.
EASTERBROOKIt's a slow accumulation of many hits to the head causes the same long-term neurological damage. And in a society that's increasingly education-based, having our young boys bashing each other in the head just can't be the world's greatest idea.
REHMThere's also a question about what that view of football -- that is, young kids bashing each other in the head, how do you think that affects society as a whole and society's view of even restrained or constricted violence, constricted on the football field?
EASTERBROOKWell, I want to say there's been some improvement. Just in the last decade, the NFL, which for years denied that concussions were even an issue, has finally admitted that they are. At least now they're saying the right things, which is farther than they were a decade ago. And I think at the youth and high school level, there's increasing awareness.
EASTERBROOKWhen I was an assistant high school coach in Montgomery County in '08 -- this is just five years ago -- I had to take an FBI background check to prove that I wasn't a registered sex offender, which was a thousand to one possibility. I didn't have to take a first aid class in sports first aid in recognizing symptoms of heat stroke or concussions.
EASTERBROOKMost high school football coaches didn't know how to treat a concussion, didn't know how to evaluate it. That's changing. So I think as that change -- maybe neurological damage can be brought to heal in some way, but the sport is still fundamentally really dangerous to your head.
REHMOf course, when you talk about head injuries, what about soccer where the head is part of the game?
EASTERBROOKThat's a good point. In hours of practice or play, rates of concussions are about the same in soccer as they are in football. The difference is that there's four times as many football players as soccer players.
REHMSo people play soccer, use their heads, but there are fewer of them. Isn't it really in the best interest of the NFL to keep their players safer? Aren't there designs for helmets, for example, that could restrict that kind of damage?
EASTERBROOKWell, you would think this, but the owners have just never shown any interest in preserving the health of their players, other than their quarterbacks, which they have the highest investment in. And I give all the data in "King of Sports," but the NFL has known for several years that some helmet type -- no helmet will ever prevent concussions. It's always a risk.
EASTERBROOKBut the NFL has known for years which helmet types, which brands, and which models are more likely to reduce concussion risk. And the NFL not only doesn't release that information to the public. They don't mandate that their teams only allow players to wear the helmets that are likely to reduce concussion risk. They're more concerned with their legal liability than they are with the health of their players.
REHMHere is an email from Rob, and this word who is in all caps. He says, "Who is calling for reform of football? I don't hear any of it in my circle of friends or acquaintances. I'm guessing it's a vocal minority trying to impose its will on America's favorite game. The league regularly changes rules to improve player safety. It doesn't need outsiders telling it how to do its business. Folks that don't like the game should not watch and let the rest of us enjoy the game."
EASTERBROOKWell, I hope you will enjoy the game, to your listener. I think there's a tremendous amount of interest in reform of football and that only outsiders will be able to achieve it. The NFL and other aspects of the football establishment have repeatedly shown that they are resistant to reform not just on health and safety. Now let's just think about the NFL. When I talk about this subject, often people say, look, these guys are adults. They know that they're assuming a risk.
EASTERBROOKThey're paid millions of dollars a year. If an adult assumes a risk in return for a great reward, why should I care about that? And you know what? That's right. You shouldn't care about that. What you care about is that they're setting an example for 4 million kids who imitate NFL behavior, most of whom will never receive any kind of recruiting boost to college and almost none of whom will ever get any money from the NFL.
EASTERBROOKSo they're setting a bad example, and they're taking public subsidies to set a bad example. If it was a true free market enterprise with no public money involved, I think probably the concern would be a lot lower.
REHMHere's another email from Thomas in Oklahoma City who says, "I have two young sons not yet old enough for sports. I want them to have the benefits of engaging in team sports. And I love football more than any other, but I have serious reservations allowing my children to play, considering the risk of concussions and brain damage.
REHM"I suppose my specific question is, do we know whether it's even possible to design safety equipment to eliminate the risk of concussions? On another note, the commentator expressed his desire to see President Obama lead a charge to reform football considering the kind of vitriol he's subject to from red states. And, believe me, I grew up in football country. I can't think of anything he could do that would make him even more unpopular in our neck of the woods."
EASTERBROOKWell, that was exactly what was said about Teddy Roosevelt in 1905...
EASTERBROOKYes. If -- suppose there was a presidential initiative. If it was perceived as Barack Obama tries to outlaw football, of course, that's not going to play anywhere. That not only won't play in Texas. That won't play in Massachusetts. If it's perceived as Barack Obama who loves sports -- we all know he loves sports -- tries to reform football to make it secure for the long term, I think that would do pretty well.
EASTERBROOKTo answer the two other questions, is there a lot -- is there good in having mostly boys play football? Yeah. If football is done properly, it teaches boys how to become men, how to express your masculinity within a context of rules. And that's something we as a nation need to learn how to do. We're the most masculine of all nations. We have to learn how to follow rules when we express our masculinity.
EASTERBROOKSo football can teach that. I enjoyed playing high school football. I have two sons. They enjoyed playing. One played in college. You can benefit a lot from it. But the health risks are there. And the way for your caller to avoid this, I think, is before middle school, all -- the pediatric researchers are ironclad on this. Don't play tackle football before middle school.
EASTERBROOKThe risk to your head is too great. So play flag football, which is great and a lot of fun. And then don't let your boys play football until middle school. Don't take my word for this. Take Archie Manning's word. That's what he did with Peyton and Eli Manning. He didn't let them -- never let them put on pads and helmets until they reached middle school, and they seemed to turn out okay.
REHMInteresting. What about college football? How did so much money get into college football?
EASTERBROOKWell, the rising popularity of the sport is just amazing. just the last 20 years -- 20 years ago, ACC's -- one of the ACC schools, Florida State, is the number one team in the country. It'll play Auburn for the national championship. Twenty years ago, ACC schools got about -- in today's money -- about half a million dollars a year for broadcast rights for football. This coming year, it's 18 million.
EASTERBROOKNext year, it's going to go up to 26 million. The money has just increased by multiples. College football's a great sport. The quality has never been higher. The games are fabulous. They're popular on television. The money has become a roaring river.
REHMWhat about the recruitment of young men in high school to come to colleges with the promises by college coaches of the dream of something bigger and better ahead?
EASTERBROOKWell, we can talk about, if you want, whether college football players should be paid -- and I think they should not. But what I say in "King of Sports" is that the grand illusion of college football is that players don't need to graduate because they're going on to the NFL. And if you were going to sign a multimillion-dollar bonus check in the NFL, then, yeah, you could finish your degree later. But hardly anybody does this. The odds of a high school football player at the varsity level ever playing in the NFL are one in 2,000.
EASTERBROOKThe odds of a Division I player ever playing in the NFL are one in 35. And the odds -- Division I is the highest level of college football. The odds of a Division I player lasting more than three years in the NFL are one in 50. So hardly anybody makes it as an NFL player. Meanwhile, only half of them get their bachelor's degrees. And the degree is the thing that's of economic value to him -- to them. The scandal of college football is that the players don't graduate, not that they're not paid.
REHMGregg Easterbrook, and his new book is titled, "The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got lots of callers who'd like to get into this conversation. 800-433-8850. First to Allen who's in Ann Arbor, Mich. Hi, you're on the air.
ALLENOh, thank you very much. I've been waiting for this opportunity. I did play my high school football. I did 98 yards from scrimmage and still have the school record.
ALLENBut I heard -- and I think it might have been on your show, Diane -- someone say that, in 1890, the Department of Interior declared the frontier closed and considered that this is going to create a cultural problem because the grand old sport of baseball didn't really compensate, didn't -- equivalent to this lust of Americans always for the frontier to be able to conquer territory, and that what was needed was a game of football, the game of territorial conquest and struggle at the boundary, which is what America has been about. And it also supports the imperial lust of America to expand abroad.
ALLENAnd money was put into specifically the colleges that you mentioned, Harvard and Yale and Columbia, to develop football as a prominent sport. And out of those elite schools, it would spread because America needed the sport of conquest.
ALLENAnd even now, there is that sense that football corresponds to the American...
EASTERBROOKWell, certainly there are loads of military metaphors in football. And there's a famous George Carlin routine on this subject. But I would take a slightly different tact. I would say that the reason for the transition between baseball and football as the American pastime is that baseball is a low energy -- it's a very pleasant pastoral sport. It was a sport for an agricultural era.
EASTERBROOKAround World War II, when American became highly structured and factory-based, football is the athletic interpretation of a factory and of big organizations, big size, power, money, et cetera. I think that's more how it developed.
REHMAnd to Ellen here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.
ELLENHello. Yes. I was -- wanted to comment on just playing versus a fan. I was an NFL agent for 18 years, the first woman to represent NFL players. I worked at the NFL Players Association, and I've been teaching sports law at GW for 20 years. So my background is extensive.
ELLENBut I think the conversation really needs to be depicted between playing at the youth development level and who is a fan because the focus of the NFL is really twofold, creating a fan to like the entertainment and then, on the other side, developing their youth market, so they have players to fulfill their entertainment or their performers. My son, I do not want to play football after all my years of football. He break dances competitively.
ELLENAnd so that's because of the concussion rates, which is really not just about the head but really about the neck and how the neck cannot support the impact of the concussion. I had many players who were dazed for months because of that concussion rate.
ELLENAnd the NFLPA, since 1980s, at the lead of Clark Gaines, who headed that area, has been studying concussions since the '80s, before the '87 strike. So this is an issue within the players, but when they get to the bargaining table, somehow it doesn't become as much of a priority. So I think it's going to take the fans to make it a priority and the youth and the parents to make it a priority.
REHMAll right. Ellen, thanks so much for your call. We've got to take a short break. And Gregg Easterbrook, when we come back, perhaps you can address the issues Ellen raised. Short break here, and right back.
REHMWelcome back. Gregg Easterbrook is with me. His new book is titled "The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America." And speaking of impact, here's an email from Bill in Dallas, Texas who says, "Polycarbonate helmet has allowed players to effectively weaponize their heads, giving them false sense of protection. Players from the days of the leather helmet do not have the rate of Alzheimer's and other ailments that do the retirees who played after its introduction.
REHMRetired rugby players who play their sport helmetless may have more missing teeth but also do not have the kinds of traumatic brain conditions NFL retirees have. Solution is, take away the source of the problem, the helmet. Go back to the leather helmet. You will no longer see players ramming each other head first."
EASTERBROOKI'm not sure I would recommend that but the caller is certainly onto something. When I played high school football -- and I won't date myself by giving the year -- but it was before the polycarbonate helmet, and then you didn't use your head as a battering ram. You tried to keep your head away from contact. And the period before polycarbonate helmets, skull fractures were a common problem in football. Fortunately, that's been now eliminated. Skull fractures are very rare.
EASTERBROOKBut you put a modern -- you put a Riddell VSR-4 on your head and you feel like you've just put your head into a missile. The thing is so strong and so powerful it does tempt players to use it as a weapon. So whenever I talk about this and say although there are some helmets that statistically reduce the risk of concussion, it's not the helmet itself. It's the way the game is practiced and played. Players have to be taught to keep their heads up at all times. The saying among progressive football coaches -- and believe it or not there are some -- the saying is, see what you hit.
EASTERBROOKIf you see the person you're hitting, that means your head is up, not down like this with your neck exposed and vulnerable. So if you keep your head up your odds of injury go way down. And if officials very strictly enforced the unnecessary roughness rules, odds of injury go down.
REHMNow tell me what happens to players who are brought in, you know, with millions of dollars in bonus money for signing and stuff, and then they're injured and they can no longer play. What happens to them?
EASTERBROOKAt the NFL level, generally you keep the money you made that year and anything that's guaranteed in that contract. And then they wave goodbye to you. And they certainly wave goodbye to your health care costs. If you've been in the league for more than five years under the current collective bargaining agreement, you can purchase a pretty good long term health insurance policy. If you came before the current agreement, which was 2011, the league washes its hands of you entirely.
REHMDid you talk to anyone who was in that situation?
EASTERBROOKWell yeah, "King of Sports" has a whole chapter called Used Up and Thrown Away. It's about what happens to players who get injured or get in trouble or make mistakes with their lives. And it's really not the wealthy NFL stars that you should worry about. It's the fact that for every one NFL star who cashed a million dollars bonus check, there's 100 guys who never got anything at all except a long term health care problem.
EASTERBROOKNCAA does the same. It washes its hands of players the minute that they leave college. And generally neurological harm doesn't manifest immediately after the injury. Now I admit it can also be hard to trace what the onset of a neurological problem is but once you're 30, 40 years old, even if you've played a lot of college and pro football, neither one will take any responsibility for your health problems. The owners want the money, they don't want the responsibility.
REHMAnd here's a question from Margie in N.C. "Aren't these players just too large, 300 pounds plus, bodies crashing into, piling onto one player? Shouldn't there be a weight limit on players?"
EASTERBROOKLet me read you a quick paragraph from "The King of Sports." The Green Bay Packers played in their first Super Bowl in 1967, fielding a defensive line that averaged 254 pounds. When the Packers played in the 45th Super Bowl in 2011, their defensive line averaged 320 pounds.
EASTERBROOKThe players are getting so big that I think -- I'm not saying this in jest -- I think the field will need to be enlarged soon so that there's room for running plays. And for this to happen to -- well, I guess the first point you make is, we live in a country with a childhood obesity epidemic. And the number one sport celebrates and idealizes weight gain. And it is possible to gain a lot of weight in a healthy manner, supervised lifting, good nutrition. Football players actually are very big on good nutrition right now. But most players don't.
EASTERBROOKWhen you see the weight gain in high school and the college level, their weigh-gain strategy is burgers and fries. And you get life-long health problems in return for no appearance in the NFL.
REHMAll right. To Orlando, Fla. Hi, John, you're on the air.
JOHNHi. Thank you for taking my call. You already addressed what I need to say but I'll say it briefly. I played rugby and you don't see the kinds of tackling and the kinds of injuries. And actually if defenses would learn how to tackle like a rugby player we'd see a lot better defenses in the NFL.
REHMWhat do you think?
EASTERBROOKYeah, in rugby you mainly use wrap up tackling where you go low around the person's legs and try to wrap your arms around them. Good defensive coordinators in football teach that. They would rather have a wrap-up tackle than a spectacular launch-your-body-into-space-hoping-to-get-on-Sports Center tackle. So it's a common complaint that modern football tacking is poor because people are trying to make spectacular hits.
EASTERBROOKI wish I could say that the solution is to make grid iron football more like rugby but rugby doesn't have organized set plays where the players collide at the beginning like football does. I think the solution has to be elsewhere.
REHMTo John in Birmingham, Ala. Hi there.
JOHNHi there, and thank you. I have several comments but what I'd really like to say is that football is not the problem. It's the mentality of the American public to love entertainment so much that they spend billions of dollars and they pay people far more than people are worth. $30 million to Roger Goodell to me is just completely wrong. And the football -- the cost of football has become the second worst problem we have in the country. Education is the first worst problem.
JOHNI'd like to forget about the players themselves because you pay millions of dollars to players who typically would play the game for minimum wage because they love it. They love the celebrity of it. Thank you very much for taking my comments.
REHMAnd thank you for your call, John. Greg.
EASTERBROOKWell, certainly if you just look at football from the fans' standpoint, fans have never been happier. The game is the best it's ever been. At the pro, college and even at the high school level, if your local high school plays football, go watch a game. You're likely to be impressed. The games are fabulous. But should they be subsidized in the way that they are? Should we accept the damage to education that we accept? And I got to say, I put that not so much on the owners or the athletic directors at big universities. I put that on congress and state legislatures that let them get away with this.
REHMAnd what about graduation rates for college students who are players?
EASTERBROOKIf they were going on to the NFL we wouldn't worry about that but most of them are not. Fifty-five percent graduation rate in Division 1, that's big college football, that's something that colleges should be ashamed of. That's something the NCAA should be ashamed of. If they cared anything -- about anything other than money they would be ashamed of that. Number one team in the country, Florida State, they played a good season. Go Seminoles. Fifty-eight percent graduation rate in football, fifty percent graduation rate in African Americans. That's shameful.
EASTERBROOKUSC just fired its coach, Lane Kiffin because he didn't win enough games. He also has a 48 percent graduation rate for African Americans.
EASTERBROOKUSC Board of Trustees should be ashamed of that.
REHMAnd there are some people who I'm sure are wondering whether football has become such a cult that a situation like that at Penn State could actually occur.
EASTERBROOKWell, yeah, all of your listeners know the horrible story at Penn State. And at the bottom of that horrible story is that no one would question the football coach. He was more important than the president of the college. He was more important than the governor of the state. He was like a little god walking on the campus. No one could question him. And that doesn't happen just at Penn State. That happens at high schools all around the country. Students observe that the football coach can do things that would cause teachers to go to jail and that the principal never questions the football coach. So what conclusion do they come to?
EASTERBROOKNow high school level, there's some very ethical coaches who do a great job of teaching boys to become men. But in general, it's too much like a cult.
REHMAll right. And to Charlottesville, Va. Hi there, Nick.
NICKGood morning, Diane.
NICKI think it's been documented that long term brain injuries suffered by football players aren't so much the result of the single or multiple big hits in a game, but more the effects of repeated head-to-head contact, mostly lower level contact, from high school on. And most of that in practice, not during the games. So my question for Mr. Easterbrook is, is the NCAA, NFL or any high school organization working toward the abolition of contact in practice?
EASTERBROOKWell, first your caller's right on both points, that it's accumulated minor hits that are a bigger deal. And there are more hits in practice because there are more hours of practice. There are a couple of positives. The Pac-12, one of the big college conferences, just reduced practice contact hours. The NFL has reduced it. The Ivy League reduced practice contact hours five years ago. That's good. At the high school level, everything's going in the wrong direction.
EASTERBROOKAs recently as ten years ago, most state-sanctioning bodies would not allow high school football practice during the off season. Christmas would come and you couldn't have football practice again until August. Now almost all states allow year-round football practice. We're right next to Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. They've all, in the last five years, voted to allow year-round football practice because of the mania for the sport.
EASTERBROOKSo boys are spending more time risking head injuries but also less time studying because everybody knows those optional practices in February, if you're not there, you're not going to play.
REHMHow old are your sons now?
EASTERBROOKThe youngest is a Freshman in college.
REHMNow, knowing what you know, having researched this book, if you could go back, where would you allow your sons to begin?
EASTERBROOKWell, I hate to flatter myself but I think I did everything right. I didn't let them play tackle football until middle school age. In fact, I coached them when they were younger as to how to make flag football more fun for them and their friends. And when the oldest one...
REHMIs flag football what we used to call touch football?
EASTERBROOKYes. It's touch football with a flag and it's a lot of fun. It teaches you how to be in the right place at the right time, which is what you should be learning when you're 10, 11 years old.
REHMYeah, absolutely. And...
EASTERBROOKAnd the risk of injury is far lower than tackle.
REHMI would think so. Let's go now to -- before we do that, I'll remind you you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Jackson, Mississippi and to Jay. Hi there, you're on the air.
JAYHi. I have a question. I played hockey since I was five and I actually had three concussions during that time. Do you have any kind of, like comparison not really in numbers but severity? Because, I mean, hockey players, he can move a lot faster than he can just running.
EASTERBROOKConcussions are a big issue in ice hockey, which only recently began to mandate helmets.
EASTERBROOKBut because there are so few ice hockey players in the United States versus what you would find in Canada, I haven't spent a lot of time on that issue.
REHMAnd to Mark in Charlotte, N.C. You're on the air.
MARKYeah, an interesting segue about flag football and that was what I was going to point out. I sustained my worst concussion playing football when we were playing flag football. I played all through elementary school and all the way through high school, but my worst injury -- worst concussion I ever received was when we played flag football. So I agree that the helmet, you know, could make things worse if you're using your head but bear in mind, you know, it's a fast-moving game. And you can get hurt without a helmet as well. So I just wanted to point that out.
EASTERBROOKAll life is full of risks. We trade risk against benefits. Bicycling is dangerous. People get concussions bicycling.
EASTERBROOKBut we don't say as a result that bicycling should be abolished. We say that safety standards should be as high as possible. And that's the same reaction I have about football.
REHMAnd finally to Ernie in Jacksonville, Fla. You're on the air.
ERNIEThank you, Diane. Just had a two-part question real quick. Has there ever been any statistical studies to identify what area of the NFL sport, be it kickoff returns, punt returns, a receiver running across the middle not being descended and just wide open to a hit or a quarterback sack and also positions from that standpoint? Can you respond to that, please?
EASTERBROOKYes. I can tell you offensive line is most dangerous from a concussion standpoint because five offensive linemen start each play with their heads down in an exposed position. And I can tell you that I think the two reforms that are coming that are needed and that you're going to say no, no don't do that, when they happen it's going to be fine, kickoffs will be eliminated because concussion rates are much higher on kickoffs. The three-point stance will be eliminated. Every player will start the play with hands on hips.
EASTERBROOKAnd for the first five games played under those rules people are going to squeal. A year later everybody's going to be happy and injury rates will go down.
REHMWhat do you think, Ernie?
ERNIEI think that's fantastic. I was just curious also to the -- and I think you answers it there -- is the inevitable rule changes that are going to happen with the game. I know when I played in high school, I played soccer and football, I really enjoyed the football. I enjoyed the structure, the organization, the contact. And so -- now I only weighed 185 pounds, not 350 pounds, and I couldn't run a 45-40 at that time. So the game has changed immensely and so on. So I see an inevitable change that must happen.
ERNIEI don't think we're really into watching, like, Theismann type injuries and so on. I don't think that's what the game's about. I don't find it entertaining and I think eventually people will come to that conclusion.
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call, Ernie. Do you agree?
EASTERBROOKI do. And let me quickly say, "King of Sports" isn't just complaints about football. I also propose a constructive example. I spent a full year with the Virginia Tech football team. Virginia Tech is famed for winning seasons 20 in a row and also very high graduation rates. Seventy-seven percent of the players graduate. If 77 percent of college players graduated across the board, college football would not be controversial.
EASTERBROOKSo I spent a year with the team and I describe in detail how Virginia Tech wins games and also graduates players. It's not pie in the sky. Any college could do it if that was their priority.
REHMGregg Easterbrook and his new book is titled "The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America." He's a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Monthly and a columnist for ESPN.com. This is his eighth book. Congrats to you.
EASTERBROOKThank you, Diane. It's my fourth time here and I hope I'm coming back for number five.
REHMI'll look forward to it. Thank you. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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