Football is my guilty pleasure, and that saddens me

I’ve been a football fan(atic) for as long as I can remember.

I grew up in western Pennsylvania, a football hotbed, so it’s only natural that some of my earliest memories are of watching football. And, in western PA, by watching football I mean either watching the Steelers, or waiting for a game to end so you can watch the Steelers.

Born with my Terrible Towel in hand, I grew up loving the game and I played from fourth grade through high school. Outside of pick-up games and watching on TV, I didn’t do much with the game during college, but a few years after graduating I decided to became a football official.

My father-in-law, who was a soccer official at the time, came home on a Saturday afternoon with a handful of cash after officiating some youth games and I couldn’t believe it.

He got money for being an official?

Knowing that the local officiating chapter was hurting for new blood (as they all are), he encouraged me to join the ranks. I figured it was the perfect opportunity to be around the game I love and make a few extra dollars in the fall to help pay for Christmas.

I still remember my first scrimmage. I blew an inadvertent whistle because it felt like I had been running for miles. I assumed the player had reached the end zone.

He hadn’t.

He was at the 20 and I was woefully out of shape.

I learned two things very quickly. First, never run with your whistle in your mouth. Second, I needed to get in shape.

Now, 14 years later, I’m in much better shape, I’ve only had one inadvertent whistle since then, and I still love the game.

At least I think I still love the game.

You see, after this past season, with talk of how dangerous the game had become and seeing kids from third through twelfth grade get possible life-altering injuries playing a game, I started feeling guilty.

Over my officiating career I’ve seen hundreds of injuries. From mild bumps and bruises, to compound fractures, to one kid who needed to be revived on the field.

I have no personal statistics to back this up, but I can say that the number of injuries seems to go down each year. Which is likely a combination of improved sports medicine and rules put in place to make the game safer.

It’s these rules though that have football purists up-in-arms.

Each year there are new rules put in place to protect the players, and each year there are purists that claim these rules are ruining the game. These purists are not just the officials, they are coaches and parents as well.

To a person, all football purists yell the same thing when a new rule is introduced in the off season, or enforced on the field:

“This is football!”

Which is a sound argument.

When I first became and official, I sided with these folks. When I was in high school blocks below the waist were perfectly legal. I bet I took 100 of them,  and I’m doing fine. Well, except for knee problems that I’ve had since high school …

But I grew up and realized that, yes, this is football. This is a game that comes with a lot of risk. However, these are kids and we’re adults. If we want the game to survive, we must take steps to minimize that risk. Kids should not have to suffer for the rest of their life with pain because some coach wants to relive the glory days of their football career.

What worries me most about the purists is that as long as they are the coaches and officials the game will continue to deteriorate. Instead of changing it will cease to exist.

Football has a safety problem, there is no doubt about that. More than that though, football has a culture problem.

That culture drive me insane. I hated it when I played and I hate it more now.

Some nights it makes me want to walk off the field and never return. But that’s not me.

I still love being on the field, and more than the guilt I feel, I feel an obligation to stay on the field to help change the culture.

So the next time a coach tells me that this is football and these rules have him considering retirement, I can only hope he’s not caught up in the moment and that it’s the last time he can impact a child’s mind.

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