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Al Hutchison: Is football in the United States worth the price?

In the October issue of The Atlantic, journalist Amanda Ripley argues that “all the money, time, and energy invested in high school sports would be better spent on boosting academic performance.” Ripley is the author of “The Smartest Kids In The World — And How They Got That Way.”

In the December issue of the magazine, several readers responded to Ripley’s article, and although they expressed various levels of approval or disagreement with her premise, all exhibited an admirable reasonableness.

Ripley’s main point in “The Case Against High-School Sports” was that the money and the attention devoted to team sports — particularly football — was an unnecessary and unwarranted diversion of precious resources that would be better used if allocated to academic rather than athletic activities.

A reader in Houston agreed: “It’s time for parents who want their kids to play sports to foot the bill,” she wrote. “Taxes are meant to support education — not sports. If parents want their kids to play, they pay.”

But a reader from upstate New York argued that uncoupling sports from schools would then create barriers “for students whose families are not able to bear these costs.” That’s a fair point.

A former president of the New York State Athletic Administrators Association offered a different view: “There are many students,” he wrote, “who stay in school or build their confidence in athletics, theater, music, or any other club,” and he argued, eliminating athletics would not guarantee academic success.

A different complaint came from a reader in Toledo, Ohio: “Athletes and their coaches are treated like gods” by the media while students who achieve success in non-athletic endeavors often are virtually ignored, he observed. Although that’s not always the case, it can’t be denied that gifted athletes often are celebrated excessively by their admirers.

There may be no reason to argue that America’s high schools should drop all interscholastic sports, but perhaps they should at least carefully examine the value of football, not just because of any financial issues (which are wide open to debate) but because the sport has been shown, repeatedly and conclusively, to be extremely risky to the health of the players.

American football (especially when compared to the world’s most popular sport, soccer) is dangerous. Injuries are drawing a great deal of attention by both the National Football League and the National Association of Collegiate Athletics (NCAA), and the concern at that level should also merit the attention of high school administrators (and parents), too.

The 32 teams in the NFL employ 2,000 players, yet on a typical Sunday this season nearly 25 percent of them were too hurt to play. Before the midway point of the season, 200 players were on injured reserve. Of those, 180 were sidelined for the remainder of the season.

But that’s only part of the increasingly well-publicized story: Several former NFL players have declared that the injuries they suffered playing the game have physically impaired them for the rest of their lives. There have even been suicides. Some former players have said they’d hesitate to let their sons play the sport for fear they’d be impaired for life.

At the college level, where games sometimes draw crowds of 100,000 or more, officials were so distressed by the high injury rates that this season they introduced a rule that expels a player accused of “targeting” an opponent by tackling him in a dangerous manner. Perhaps because the rule is new, there have been numerous expulsions already. In fact, a University of Florida player, Cody Riggs, was expelled on the first play from scrimmage in the Gators’ loss to Missouri — and he later said the officials made the right call.

To many of us, football is a great game. But in its present form, is it worth the price some players are paying? And does the cost of the game in any way impede the pursuit of academic excellence in our school system? Is it reasonable to use tax funds to finance interscholastic athletics?

Americans need to begin asking these questions, but know this: Any debate on the future of football will be deeply, and perhaps convincingly, influenced by the fact it’s a sport that, despite its risks to players, generates huge incomes for many (including NFL team owners who often enjoy massive tax subsidies, and the universities that cherish the revenue from sold-out stadiums) and strongly held team loyalties for millions more.

And there’s this consideration, which Ripley emphasized in The Atlantic article: Other nations, whose successful education programs are the envy of Americans, seldom sponsor interscholastic sports in the manner that is so widely accepted in the United States.

Al Hutchison is a retired newspaper editor and publisher who lives in Citrus County.

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