Reminder: Most People Endangered by Football Don't Play in the NFL

President Obama says it's OK to enjoy events like the Super Bowl because the players are consenting adults. But most of the country's players are kids and teens who don't know better.
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A youth participates in a December NFL game's halftime program. (Chris Schneider / AP)

On Sunday evening, the 48th Super Bowl will kick off, and millions of Americans will tune in—the Super Bowl has been the most-watched television broadcast for 20 of the last 20 years. Americans need not view the controlled violence of the professional football as a guilty pleasure: The president says it’s okay to watch NFL games.

“These guys, they know what they’re doing. They know what they are buying into,” in terms of risk, the president told David Remnick of The New Yorker.

Obama is correct—there is no reason not to enjoy the Super Bowl. I’ll be at the game, and anticipate having a great time. I like Seattle by a field goal.

But Remnick and Obama spoke only of the NFL. Most attention to football focuses on its professional level, where “they know what they’re doing” is a common theme. For instance, a few days after the president’s remarks were published, Mike Florio, a football analyst for NBC, denounced “incessant hand wringing” about football’s neurological harm—the players are highly paid “grown men.”

Focusing on the grown men of the NFL is the wrong way to think about this sport’s impact on society. Ninety-eight percent of football players are tykes, tweens, and teens who, legally, are children; who assume all the risks for none of the gain; who emphatically do not “know what they are buying into.”

In The New Yorker interview, Obama compared football to prizefighting, a sport of which Remnick has written admiringly. In reference to adults who play in the NFL despite knowing its dangers, the president added, “It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”

By this logic, children should be allowed to smoke. Eight-year-olds should be able to smoke, since they play full-pads tackle in many leagues. Middle schools should sponsor cigarette clubs. High schools should get the student body together for smokers’ pep rallies.

Or if boxing is the correct analogy, it’s as if every high school had 100 boys in a prizefighting society that stages a dozen public battles-royal each fall in front of the entire school. It’s as if public universities spent more on the boxing program than the English Department. (Ohio State football budget for 85 players: $23 million. Ohio State writing center budget for 43,000 undergraduates: $800,000.) It’s as if large public universities spent $13,736 on academics per student and $138,424 per member of the boxing team—the actual latest numbers for education versus football. (Check this tool created by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which is the good twin to the NCAA’s evil twin.)

Pro football is the No. 1 sport of the No. 1 nation, so it’s only natural the NFL is the focal point when football is mentioned. It’s fine to love this fabulous game. I played in high school and college, have attended way too many NFL contests including many Super Bowls, and look forward to attending more. I wince whenever an NFL player is injured, though understand that risk is part of producing great athletics—just as dancers may ruin their knees or lower backs in producing great ballet.

But there are only 1,700 NFL players, compared to 50,000 in helmets in college and four million youth and prep. Nearly all the social impact of football occurs outside the NFL. It’s youth, high school, and college players society should worry about.

Big college football programs graduate just 55 percent of players, compared a to 68-percent graduation rate for male students overall at the same universities. Florida State, this season’s champion, graduates 58 percent of its football players, versus 71 percent for male Florida State students overall. Football players typically get five years instead of four, and don’t pay for college; meanwhile, running out of money is the most common reason non-athlete undergraduates fail to complete degrees. So college players ought to graduate at a higher rate than students as a whole. Instead, nearly half are used up and thrown away—sold by their coaches a daydream of the NFL, when just three percent of big-college players ever take a snap in the pros.

Lack of diplomas is a greater problem in college football than lack of pay. A bachelor’s degree adds $1 million to lifetime earnings, more than the typical college player could receive under any pay scheme. And the diploma confers on its recipients social mobility, which no proposed college football pay scheme addresses.

Big-college football with strong graduation rates is not pie-in-the-sky. My new book The King of Sports spends two chapters detailing how Virginia Tech has posted 20 consecutive winning seasons and played in the top bowl games, yet graduates 77 percent of its players. Virginia Tech caters to typical students, not the rare person who can both play football and be accepted by the admissions department at Notre Dame or Stanford. The Virginia Tech example shows big-college football really can promote education—if the university cares.

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Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is the author of The Leading Indicators and The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America.

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