As an American Football fan since 1985 and an American Football player between 1995 and 2013, I am no stranger to having to defend my sport. It is often from the confused, the ill-informed and most commonly from Rugby fans that believe that American Football is for wusses, as we wear all those pads or how it cannot be a proper sport with all those players and the stopping and starting. Today, I find myself in the odd position of defending American Football from accusations that the sport is of no interest outside of the US, and so potentially lethal that it should not be allowed into the UK.
Late last week the Guardian newspaper published a column by Martin Kettle, following up on Dave Bry’s column from the beginning of the year, advocating that American Football should not be adopted in the UK and is so dangerous that it should be banned. Martin, currently an Associate Editor with the Guardian writing on British, European and American politics, as well as the media, law and music, and David, currently a Guardian columnist for Public Apology and Food Snob, feel that no one outside of the USA likes American Football, if they do they’re boring, obsessed “statto” types and that the whole shebang is just too damn dangerous for anyone to play.
American football remains stubbornly unembraced by the rest of the world, which makes the Super Bowl a global sporting event which few outside the US bother to follow.
With Sunday’s Super Bowl 50 we seen the yearly zenith of a sport, that Martin believes ‘remains stubbornly unembraced by the rest of the world’. Well, to paraphrase the great Jerry Hardin, American Football has been in the UK for a Long, Long Time; from the heady days of the Budweiser League in the 80s, through the short lived World League & NFL Europe in the 90s, to today’s resurgent British American Football Association (BAFA) the UK has been actively embracing American Football for over 30 Years.
I will happily admit that professional leagues with the power, scale and razzamatazz of the National Football League (NFL) are not seen in the rest of the world, well to be fair in almost any other sport. However, a moment’s research into the semi-pro and amateur game reveals a very different story. The International Federation of American Football, is recognised by the International Olympic Committee, and has affiliated federations in 71 countries. The UK currently boasts more than 60 adult teams playing the full contact version of the sport running the length and the breadth of the country. Not forgetting the University Teams, Youth Teams, Flag Football and the growing number of dedicated Women’s Teams.
Taking it a step further, if you consider the above plus the fact that, last year, nearly 121m people watched the New England Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks comments like the ‘Super Bowl (is) a global sporting event which few outside the US bother to follow’, start sounding increasingly like wilful ignorance rather than a lack of research.
While the UK game continues to grow and develop, with Brits like Jason Scott coaching Mississippi States’ Defensive Line as they topped the US College Leagues, or Lawrence Okoye joining a steady stream of players from the UK trying to make it as professionals in the US, it’s potential remains limited not through a lack of passion or talent, but for a lack of support, and funding. Notably the UK will not be sending a team to the World University Championships, even though UK Universities currently boasts the largest amateur league in Europe, with more than 80 teams, and a national team that has scored recent victories against Sweden and Finland (teams that finished 3rd & 4th at the World Championships in 2014). I know titles like “Largest Amateur League in Europe” and 80 teams can feel a little meaningless, so please factor in that an American Football team will be anything from 20-60 players. It is a constant heartbreak for players old and new that the grass roots of the sport in the UK constantly struggle for recognition.
So, if Martin, as a senior journalist at a respected broadsheet, can get the numbers so wrong, how seriously should we take the demand for the importation of the sport should be banned?
Well, Ain’t That a Kick in the Head
the idea that Britain should import and embrace an entertainment in which big young men collide into each other at high impact for the crowd’s delectation, placing themselves at high risk of brain traumas that will wreck and end their lives, is not a comfortable one.
The above quote from Mr. Kettle has grabbed me as a little odd. We live in a country with a very proud history in any number of contact sports currently boasting World, Olympic and European Champions in Boxing, Tae Kwon Do, MMA and any number of Martial Arts, we have Professional Wrestlers wowing crowds around the world, a professional Ice Hockey League, and this weekend sees the start of Rugby Union’s 6 Nations. So, I am afraid that the sort of entertainment that Mr. Kettle fears already abounds in Britain.
Now, it is entirely fair to say that the NFL is no stranger to controversy, from last year’s Deflategate Scandal, the criminal activities of players like Aaron Hernandez or Michael Vick, the current discussions brought about the NFL settling with players claims for concussion related injuries and the release of Will Smith’s movie Concussion.
However, how much of the problem is cultural and how much is it to do with the sport?
Mr. Kettle quotes Gary Willis in that, ‘playing through pain is the point’, while Bry’s talks about a tide of head on collisions that no helmet can possibly protect against. For anyone who has played sport at a competitive level the idea of going the extra yard, the importance to commit, walking off injuries and the will to win are all too common. As fans we expect that players at the top flight will take risks, show daring and are absolutely committed to their team mates and their goal. Playing through the pain can be found in almost any sport. Association Football and Rugby Football are no strangers to the tragedy of players pushing themselves to the absolute limit and beyond, in order to win or players we turn into heroes and gods turning out to be all too human as injuries push players into drug and alcohol addiction or the need to win at all costs destroys regard for the rules and the spirit of the game, like Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace or the turmoil that the International Amateur Athletics Federation. We expect our sporting heroes to take risks, even with their lives, as Ayrton Senna put it, ‘You give everything you have.’ and ‘By being a racing driver you are under risk all the time. By being a racing driver means you are racing with other people. And if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.’ These are attitudes that are coached into players, and are lauded and driven by fans in EVERY sport and the money that is made by our triablism. If we look specifically at concussions, if not for new regulations in the RFU we would have seen Mike Brown play through his concussion against Wales in last year’s 6-Nations.
Discussions on player safety in American Football are nothing new. Famously, in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in and ordered the wearing of helmets to help prevent injuries; it is with some irony that, in the opinion of many, the modern problems with concussive injuries may well be exacerbated by the very equipment designed to protect the players.
There have even been debates as to whether the sport should abandon its trademark helmets to make players more mindful of the risks they take, something that is especially ironic as Rugby Union has seen a dramatic increase in the use of Scrum Caps to help protect players from head injuries over the same period. However, this is not a new debate and the sport has been actively looking into concussions. Helmet manufacturers like Riddell and Schutt bring out new models on an almost yearly basis boasting of improved protection. The latest development being the new Zero1 helmet, being developed in Seattle by Vicis, which is taking lessons from the automotive industry creating crumple zones so less dangerous energy makes it to the brain.
Is American Football so much more dangerous than other contact sports?
Much of the media pressure around the issue has been to do with the size of the sport in the US and the NFL’s apparent reticence to admit that their has been a problem or to try and do anything about it, but what are the risks? Quoting the New York Times:
“A study by the Mayo Clinic, released in the fall, found C.T.E. in 21 of 66 men who played contact sports (mostly football), but found no traces of the disease in 198 other brains of men who had no exposure to contact sports. The Mayo Clinic said it was unclear whether brain changes in the athletes caused any changes in behavior.
Scientists are quick to note that they do not understand why some football players get C.T.E. and others do not. But the disease, once thought to afflict mostly boxers, has been found in recent years in deceased athletes who have played soccer, rugby and even baseball.”
Notable cases of CTE outside of American Football have included a laundry list of Ice Hockey stars,the professional wrestler Chris Benoit, Ben Robinson in Rugby; importantly Ryan Freel and Curtis Baushke from the non contact sports of Baseball and Association Football.
Dave Bry has described American Football as immoral and:
It’s the speed and power with which players ram their helmeted heads into other players that’s the problem. The game as it is played today kills the people who play it, period.
As a former player I have to point out that we don’t ram our helmeted heads into each other. In fact it is worth noting that the following are penalty offences in American Football:
- Spearing (Targeting/Initiating Contact With the Crown of the Helmet)
- Leading with the head (making a tackle or block where the head is the first point of contact rather than the shoulder or hands),
- Illegal helmet contact (punching or slapping an opponent around the head)
- Facecaging (grabbing a player by their helmets protective facecage)
- Contact with Opponents who are no longer involved in the play
No-one wants to be the player who earns his team a 15-Yard penalty or, worse, gets ejected from the game for an illegal or unsafe hit. Helmets and pads even carry warnings that they are for protection and are not weapons. In the UK an ambulance and qualified medical team must also be in attendance.
As for the comment that the ‘the game as it is played today kills the people who play it’. One of the key problems with the research into CTE is that it is only diagnosed post mortem, mostly affects people in later life and that its symptoms (including memory loss, poor impulse control, and depression) are similar to degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s. Research has only been possible so far on brains that have been donated and notably not all show signs of the condition. Even in cases where there are signs of CTE, it is not the cause of death.
What’s To Be Done?
The NFL has had issues with denying that there has been a brain injury problem but that has been changing with payouts, research grants around traumatic brain injuries, and initiatives like the Head Health Challenge, which gives grants to companies working on advancement head health, change that is happening with the backing of President Obama. In the UK the MINIMUM age for players taking part in full contact American Football is 14, however, for players at NFL level in the US they will likely have played the full contact version of the game from ages as low as 5 or 6, have spent much of their teenage and college years with Football training as their primary focus, evening going to training camps during their holidays. For most towns in the US the local High School or College team will be their local sports teams with all the money and pressure that we would only expect to be piled on elite professionals in the UK.
I for one would definitely advocate seeing much more flag football being played by younger players, and it is something that is being actively campaigned for in the US.
the potential arrival of the NFL on these shores should be the subject of a proper medically informed inquiry in parliament.
Here, Mr. Kettle and I are in agreement. Speaking as a fan and former player nothing would make me happier than to see American Football discussed in Parliament, beyond the existing parliamentary working group. To see a sensible debate about my sport, if nothing else to get some facts into the mix and raise the profile of the incredible work of the players, coaches, friends, families and fans of American Football in the UK; most importantly to encourage research into the long term effects of concussion and repeated concussions.