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America needs football now more than ever, and here’s why

The game of football can be more than just a game...

NFL: NOV 03 Colts at Steelers Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This article was the subject of one of my recent episodes of “The Call Sheet” on FFSN. You can listen to the full episode below.

I’m taking a little detour this week away from talking specifically about the Steelers, which might be off-putting for some of you. For that, I apologize. But I had a conversation the other day that sparked some broader thoughts about the importance of football to American society, and I wanted to share them.

Some of you may know that in addition to coaching football I am also a high school teacher. We wrapped our school year last week with senior graduation, which is always a cool event, especially for me, since I teach predominantly seniors. At graduation, I was talking with the father of one of my students, who asked how many years I’d been teaching, and I mentioned that this was my 30th year. And then I think I blacked out for a moment at that realization, because it seems impossible it’s been that long… but when I came around again, this Dad was asking how much kids have changed over that time. He said something I thought was interesting, and I’ve been kicking it around the past few days. He said, “It feels like kids are a lot softer than they were when we were growing up. They don’t seem to want to do anything hard any more.” And I don’t really remember what I said in response, because there was hugging and crying and hats flying through the air, and it wasn’t really the time or place for deep thought or introspection. I’m sure my generic response didn’t do the topic justice.

But now that I’ve had time to consider the subject, I think the answer is quite complicated. Because it’s true, in some ways, that kids today are less willing today to do the hard things that were once baseline expectations of young people. It’s true that young people are being raised in a culture where they’re attached to their devices, and where they struggle to focus on one thing at a time, and where they can swipe through their life or dispose of things the moment they feel discomfort or a lack of satisfaction with them. And it’s true that anxiety has become a niche market. I have students who have individualized educational plans that prohibit me from making them speak in front of their peers because their anxiety is so bad they shut down. That is a problem, because life requires participation. So yes, in my 30 years of teaching I have definitely seen a significant amount of change in the nature of my students, and it’s predominantly rooted in diminished socialization skills and a decreased willingness to work though things that are hard.

This change occurred slowly, but the point where it became obvious was Covid. When the world shut down, and students went remote for the better part of 18 months, they became detached from their peers. We taught them through Zoom and Google Meets but it wasn’t the same. And, in the schools, there was so much pressure to pass young people, or to not fail them, because of inequities in the ability to provide instruction and access to technology. If a child got poor grades, there was this terrible fear the parents would sue, and there’s nothing that terrifies a school district more than the threat of a lawsuit. So what happened was the standards were essentially removed. Many places allowed students not simply to pass but to receive outstanding grades even if they did nothing, because they didn’t want to get sued. And once that toothpaste was out of the tube, well, it’s been really hard to get it back in. It’s been hard to reinstate real standards and to get kids who were basically rewarded for doing the bare minimum, largely in isolation and on their own terms, to play by the old rules.

So yes, kids have changed. But whose fault is that, really? Who lowered the bar? Who created the accommodations? Who shaped the new reality? I’ve always said that young people will adapt to whatever they’re permitted to get away with. It’s part of the relationship between young and old. The older generation sets the standard, and the younger generation pushes against it as far as they can before eventually adapting. If the standard is set high, most will rise to meet it. If it’s set low, most will sink to it.

There aren’t many areas these days where the bar has not been lowered. For example, when I first started teaching, there was a test students had to pass to qualify for an Advanced Placement course. It was called Advanced Placement, after all, because it wasn’t for everyone. Today, any student in our school can take AP. There’s no test. Parents wanted their kids in those classes because they looked good on college transcripts, and they didn’t really care whether their kids were qualified. So, they pressured the district, and the district caved.

You also used to be able to cut athletes who weren’t good enough to make a varsity sports team. Many schools have done away with cutting now. They say it’s bad for self-esteem, or that the process invites bias. In other places, class rank is being eliminated because rankings students is thought to be destructive. There are countless examples of this throughout society — of the bar being lowered. Every step of the way, it’s the adults who have done the lowering. It’s the adults who have demanded less and less, even as life for adults in this country demands more and more. That’s a truly striking problem. As life gets harder, and more competitive, in terms of the job market, and income inequality, and personal debt, as life requires you to really step up, the expectations adults are creating for young people are shrinking.

Some may disagree. They may say “Look at how competitive it is to get accepted to the nation’s best colleges these days. Kids have to work really hard to get in.” That’s a valid point. But the most elite institutions don’t have to lower their standards because of the nature of supply and demand. They have so many applicants that they can truly choose the best and brightest. Or the most privileged and best connected, however that works. Yes, getting into Princeton is still really hard. But this is about the things we demand on the day-to-day. Simple expectations about responsibility, socialization, accountability, resiliency, the ability to take criticism, the willingness to take a chance, the importance of failing.

Which brings me to the sport of football. Football is one of the few endeavors in contemporary American society where the bar has not been lowered, and where things have not been made easier. Changes have come to the game in recent years to make it safer, and those changes are positive. But the sport itself is not becoming easier. One way I can tell this is true is because the numbers in my own program are falling. Before Covid, we had about 100 players from grades 9-12. This year, that number will be about 80. The world changed after Covid, and young people were required to do less. But football doesn’t make that compromise. It asks young people to do hard things, without the promise there will be a reward at the end, and that’s a proposition many kids won’t make right now. With so many other outlets for entertainment in their lives — the phones and video games and social media, or the pressure to specialize in other sports that aren’t as physically demanding — many pass on football because, frankly, it’s too hard.

The ones who choose to play, though, for them, the lessons are invaluable. I have a 10-year old son, and he plays a bunch of sports, and football is one of them. And when people ask if I worry about his safety, or about him getting injured, the answer is yes. But what I worry about more is this: where will the intangibles he learns from playing football come from if he doesn’t play? Where will he garner the physical and mental toughness football facilitates? The value of learning to push through hard things, and not to shy away from them? Other sports are hard. Basketball, lacrosse, soccer. They are demanding in their own ways. But not like football.

As a coach, one thing I talk about often, particularly in the summer, when it’s hot, and guys are just acclimating to the tempo and intensity of practice, is not to listen to their inner monologue when it tells them how hard this is. The mind will want to quit before the body needs to. In most players, the mind is the weaker entity. Kids are often in great physical shape. They run, they lift, they do drills. But mentally, they have not been taught to endure. That’s what football does, more than any sport. To endure the challenge. Football challenges its players to combine both physical and mental elements like nothing else. And once young people learn they can – once they come through on the other side – it can build in them a resilience they transfer to other aspects of their lives. Football teaches young people what life will be like. It’s not easy. There are no guarantees. And sometimes, even when you do all the right things, you still don’t get rewarded. Yet when you push through, you emerge a better person.

As for the broader issue, of kids these days being soft, I think it’s fairly common for all generations to look at the ones who succeed them and to see them this way. My grandfather, my father’s father, certainly thought that of me. I did not grow up privileged in any sense. We were by no means wealthy. On those rare occasions my Mom bought soda, we got the bottles marked “Cola” because the name-brand stuff was too expensive. But my Mom and Dad were together, and we had a stable home in a nice neighborhood, and I went to school, played sports, had a summer job, hung out with my friends. I worked hard and I played hard. Pretty regular stuff.

My grandfather, though, had grown up poor during the Great Depression. He’d been in foster homes because his father had walked out on the family and his mother couldn’t afford to take care of him. He’d gone on to fight in World War II, then spent much of his life working in the construction business. He was a tough man, and he’d been through tough times. My life, by comparison, was a piece of cake.

I remember one time, after he’d had a few drinks, and was feeling a certain kind of way, he said to me, “You ever have to do anything hard, besides play football?” That’s how he saw me. He’d been through a lot in his life, and he thought I had it too easy, just like many older people think about kids today. And while it’s true we’ve removed many of the standards we once asked young people to reach, football hasn’t made that compromise. It’s still a tough game that instills valuable life lessons which are hard to find anywhere else.

It may sound as though I’m romanticizing this a bit – the value of football. Maybe I am. I know none of this is universally true. There are many kids for whom football does not prove to be rewarding. And there are some programs and cultures who, in their emphasis on toughness and on breeding alpha males, produce bullies instead. And yes, lots of young people do work hard in other areas, and are required to do hard things. From my experience, however, American society needs more of the lessons football imparts, particularly in this current moment where expectations and standards have fallen, and where we are doing young people a disservice by demanding less of them. As the late Dorothy Farnan, who was the chairperson of an English department at a high school in Brooklyn, once said, “Football may be the best taught subject in America because it may be the only subject we haven’t tried to make easy.”

I’ll get back to writing about the Steelers next week, but I felt this needed to be said. I’ll be interested to hear your comments below. Thanks for reading.