Keith Strudler : President Obama and Football

Jan 30, 2013

The President of the United States has some tough questions to answer.  And how he answers might determine what he can do over the next four years, whether he’s effective or lame-duck, an elitist or a man of the people.

And one of those questions will probably come Sunday, from CBS’s Scott Pelly.  But it won’t come during a White House briefing or a nightly news broadcast.  It’ll be on the Super Bowl pregame show, where the sitting president has given a one-on-one interview since 2004, lest the big game not be taken advantage of by all power seeking American institutions.  Why should corporations have all the fun, right?

A president admitting he doesn’t like football is like a Ewing admitting he doesn’t like oil.  It’s political suicide.  Fortunately, it seems, this president does like football.  And he can speak articulately on the topic, especially for someone who also has to speak articulately on the governance of Turkmenistan.  But last week he spoke about the game’s newest dark not-so-dark secret, the issue of head trauma and concussions.  And Obama said what a whole lot of people were either thinking or tried to ignore.  That this American pastime we love inflicts brutal and often irreparable harm to those that play it.  And we essentially live in a constant state of denial or cognitive dissonance to enjoy the game as we do.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with team captains center field shortly after tossing the coin at the start of the Army vs. Navy college football game at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., Saturday, December 10, 2011.
Credit U.S. Department of Defense / Glenn Fawcett

But what he said next resonated the most.  That if his kids were boys instead of girls, he’d have had a really hard time letting them play, knowing what we all seem to know now.  So even though he loves to watch and supports his team, he’d keep his own family on the sidelines.  And by the way, if you see a remarkable similarity with how most of us view the American military, join the club.  Obama also noted that the game will likely need to change and that it might not be quite as exciting, but we’ll sleep a bit better at night.

Obama's language will likely hit home with a lot of Americans, although it’s hard to know exactly how just yet.  Contrary to popular believe, football is not guaranteed through the Bill of Rights, and rules can be changed without two-thirds vote of the Senate.  And the President spoke specifically to people like me.  People who take their kids to watch games on weekends and dress their sons in Giants t-shirts yet ban them from pop warner.  My kids already know football is something to watch not do, like NASCAR and the Real World.

But there’s a silent majority that sleeps just fine already, thank you.  And they might not take so kindly to flag football, or some variant thereof.  Football is a war metaphor.  Taking the violence out of football is like taking tanks out of Afghanistan.  So if you think the President’s got a hard time negotiating tax breaks, wait ‘till he speaks to the congressman from western Pennsylvania about softening up America’s pastime.  It’s like Charlton Heston and Ronald Regan combined – you can take that pigskin from my cold dead hands.

It all puts the President, and all of us really, in a precarious place.  Do the right thing, or do what we like.  Sounds familiar, right?

But if I was advising the President, and I’m not, I’d probably tell him to get off the lead on this one.  The reality is, at some point in the not too distant future, some high school somewhere is going say they aren’t playing football anymore, because it’s just too dangerous and parents won’t take the risk.  And some college might do the same.  And for any sport to thrive, survive even in this country, it needs robust training and publicity, something that’s been provided amply and freely by our publicly funded institutions.  But when they stop, then, and only then, might the NFL truly have to consider if its sport might fall the way of Roman gladiators.  Reform for football, America’s favorite drug, will be bottom and age up, not the other way around.

If I’m the President, I’d save my political will for things like taxes and gun control and immigration.  He can find more than enough rope there.  And on Sunday, he’s probably better off picking the Niners or the Ravens, staying on the sidelines instead of playing starting QB, where he might end up getting hurt.  And let’s face it, there’s enough people getting hurt in football already.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

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