Archive for January, 2016

Parenting and Football Part III: The Rise of Injuries

The biggest sports news early this month was that professional football was returning to Los Angeles, America’s second largest city and the world’s entertainment capital, after a more than 20 year hiatus. It was little noticed that the proposed new stadium for the Rams is to be on the site of the old Hollywood Park horse track. I believe this is a good example of how sports popularity has changed over the last two generations.
Prior to 1960, the consensus was that the three most popular American spectator sports were baseball, boxing and horse racing. I can recall a 1950’s-era sportswriter being asked why, after a career of several decades, he was finally retiring. He answered succinctly: “Two reasons……..January and February.” In those days football ended in December and one had to wait till March for baseball’s spring training and the basketball playoffs. The only way for sports fans to get through the winter was horse racing and boxing’s “Friday Night Fights’, the latter being a fixture in my household.
The 1950’s was the peak in popularity for all three of those sports and by 1980 all three were greatly diminished, after a last gasp in the 1970’s: baseball had the Yankees rising from the dead with the arrival of Reggie Jackson, boxing had Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier/George Foreman and the horses had the unforgettable Secretariat.
As stated before, 1958 saw the NFL’s first overtime game and with it pro football’s gradual rise to the summit of American sports popularity.  That overtime championship game put the Baltimore Colts and their quarterback, Johnny Unitas, in the spotlight, but there was a well-loved but often overlooked player on the team who is the perfect lead-in for the topic of injuries in football.  He was a huge defensive lineman, Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb.  He quickly became a crowd and media favorite (to see the fanaticism of the 1958-59 Colts’ fans, watch the classic “Diner” in which a fiancee must pass a long test on the Colts as a prelude to a marriage proposal), mostly due to his sheer mass: he was listed at 6’6″, 285 pounds but was said to be actually 320 and surprisingly very fast for a big man.  Lipscomb would be today’s typical pro lineman but was considered a freak of nature in the 1950’s.

The 1950’s of course was  the era before TV money began to inflate players’ salaries.  Even adjusting for inflation, players made only a fraction of today’s players: it was said the average 1960 NFL player made $6,000 and even the heralded Unitas made only $14,000 (@$140,000 in today’s dollars, compared to today’s average NFL salary of $2 million).   Thus, virtually all players of that era were forced to have an off-season job and usually never entered a weight room till August.  The stereotype was the NFL player who sold cars or insurance or ran a bar-restaurant for eight months a year.  In 1960 expansion came to the NFL, the first Superbowl was in 1966 and TV money steadily climbed from that point, which lead to year-long training.

By the 1990’s the typical lineman was approaching “Lipscombesque” proportions and the laws of physics began to kick in: large immovable objects were encountering irresistible forces at high speeds all over America.  A recent glaring example of this has been today’s equivalent of the 1958-59 Colts, the New England Patriots, the most consistent team of our new millennium.   The Patriots were rudely pushed off the road to a Superbowl repeat, mostly due to the fact that their linemen were decimated by injuries: our generation’s Unitas, Tom Brady, was roughed up by the Broncos because his offensive line had had 39 different combinations of players this season.

Next week we’ll go on to a modern-day Colt, Jeff Saturday, and how he views football for his two sons.   We’ll also cover the new Will Smith movie, Concussion, and its possible consequences for football at all levels.



Leave a Comment

Football and Parenting Part II

Since today is Martin Luther King Day (and the first anniversary of this blog) I’ll begin by looking at the era of the early 1900’s, which in 1904 saw the first black professional football player and the beginning of a three decade period with only a handful of others. Pro football then had a 13 year period of segregation, followed by gradual integration in the post-WW II “jackie Robinson Era”.
The early 1900’s also saw the first widespread awareness of health dangers for players. In 1905 more than 18 players died (some from broken necks and backs) and scores were severely injured. President Theodore Roosevelt, a big football fan himself and the father of an injured Harvard University player, convened a White House conference late that year to seek how to reduce, if not eliminate, as he called it “brutality in the sport”.
Football in those days was more like rugby and many injuries occurred in what today would look like a rugby “scrum”. That 1905 conference was considered by many to be the catalyst for the introduction of the forward pass and the beginning of modern football. The new passing game alone seemed to reduce injuries and was widely hailed in the years to come, both for reducing injuries and making the game more spectator-friendly. What did not come out of the White House conference was any rule changes regarding helmets. Mandatory helmets finally came to the NCAA in 1939 and the NFL in 1943.

One of my beloved Baltimore Colts, John Mackey, emerged in the 1960’s and is considered by many to be the greatest tight end ever and was extremely important both in the NFL injury saga and in bringing much-needed health  benefits to retired players.  Mackey missed only one game in a distinguished 10 year career and was considered virtually indestructible.  In 1970 he was elected the first president of the NFL Players Association.  Mackey led the players on a strike after the owners locked them out and he was able to secure more than $12 million in much-needed benefits for his players. In the years ahead he was instrumental in securing the right of free agency for his players.  Several years after retiring from the NFL, Mackey began showing signs of dementia.  Three decades later, in 2007,  one of Mackey’s successors as head of the NFLPA, Gene Upshaw, was able to negotiate the “88 Plan”, named in honor of Mackey’s number: it provided for $88,000. per year in nursing home care for retired NFL players suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.

More recently, the man many consider the most popular player from my old hometown, Junior Seau of the San Diego Chargers, was found to have severe brain damage (after a more than 20 year football career as a hard-hitting linebacker), which physicians say caused episodes of violence and lead to his suicide.  Stayed tuned in the following two weeks for a discussion of concussions and domestic violence in football, which will hopefully help you decide if your son should play football.


Leave a Comment

Football and Parenting Part I

As stated when this blog began last January, I wanted to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and thus I wanted the blog to always incorporate historical and geographic perspectives.
America’s first century, from 1790-1890 saw a largely agricultural nation just beginning to follow the British into industrialization. The idea of a “sport” was beyond the imagination of the vast majority of the nation, laboring from sunup to sundown. as the late, great comedian George Carlin would say, “Most people were just trying to get through the goddamn day.”
Baseball had its first professional team in 1870 and was the undisputed “national pasttime” for about a century. I grew up in Oklahoma which was the home of the nation’s most famous player, Mickey Mantle, in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Just after Christmas, 1958 I was in my grandmother’s house and happened to see my first football game, the NFL Championship between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts. By pure coincidence it was the first overtime game and widely considered the most exciting and historic professional football game of all time.
I was completely hooked on the sport and my new favorite team, the Colts, who seemed to have the game’s most exciting players: John Unitas, Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore, all of whom were voted into the NFL Hall of Fame. Being an Oklahoma resident, I also became hooked on the Oklahoma University Sooners, who still hold America’s longest college winning streak at 47 games.

I also started playing regularly in my neighborhood park.  It was tackle football but no one ever wore pads nor helmets and I can’t recall even a minor injury.   Of course this was the golden age for Baby Boomer kids and we also spent much of the day on bicycles, with nary a helmet in sight-injuries seemed to be the last thing on anyone’s mind, including our parents!

Although we also played baseball (and I attribute my love for numbers to calculating baseball batting averages back in the 50’s) it seemed rather staid and sedentary compared to football, especially with JFK playing it on the White House lawn!

My family moved to Dallas, Texas in 1963 (which allowed me to see that same JFK in person just a few minutes before his assassination) and my brother and I were able to see Dallas Cowboys games from the end zone for only a dollar-the team was so bad in those early years that, in the second half we were able to move our seats to the 50 yard line.

The whole idea of avoiding football due to dangers of a concussion never entered my, or my parents’ minds!  It quickly became a moot point when I was cut from the freshman team-seems they didn’t want a 6′ 140 pound string bean, even if he could catch most passes thrown his way. The next sport up was basketball but I was far too clumsy for that one.  That was followed by track and my first year was humiliating (losing to a classmate who was a chain smoker), but 18 months later I was able to reach the top as a two-time State of Texas two mile champion.

In that pre-Title IX era I was able to get a full athletic scholarship to the nearby Southern Methodist University, part of the football-crazy Southwest Conference. I ate all my meals in the athletic dining hall and got to know a few of the behemoth-demigods on the football team.  SMU, to its credit, was the first school in the conference (and one of the first in the entire South) to have a black player on scholarship, Jerry Levias.  We all thought it unusual that Jerry drove a brand new car although he came from a poor school in Beaumont.  My first spring at SMU began to clear up that mystery when I saw the Cowboy’s Don Meredith (an SMU alum) and a bevy of Southern belles help to recruit freshman prospects in the dining hall.  SMU was to become infamous in the annals of college football by being given the “Death Penalty” in the 1980’s for years of egregious recruiting violations-in essence turning the football team into a junior version of Dallas Cowboys!

Stay tuned for part two next week, when we’ll go into concussions and the domestic violence issue in pro football.



Leave a Comment

New Year’s Message

Last week’s Christmas message talked about my daughter’s book, so it seems only right to start 2016 by telling you about the project my son Daniel and I did together in 2008-2009.
Daniel was 6-7 years old in those years and was fascinated with both robots and dinosaurs, so we decided to combine them in a kids’ book, Daniel, the Robot Dinosaur (click the link above to its Amazon page).
Being a student of history, I’ve been aware for many years how different the lives of today’s children are from those of our ancestors a century or two ago. The biggest change for all of us, of course has been greatly increased life expectancy. This is a great boon to society but it has often insulated younger children from seeing family members die.
The other great trend of the 20th century, urbanization, means that children are nor exposed to the death of farm animals as their great-grandparents were. This has resulted in death supplanting sex as our greatest modern taboo.
For that reason, I decided to have a death scene early in the book but I still strongly feel that it’s very appropriate for 7-10 year olds.
Other themes in the book are friendship (my favorite film is still 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, which shows how a strong friendship can come from two people from radically different backgrounds), the advantages of bilingualism and dealing with emergencies, another phenomenon very familiar in the past but almost completely unknown to today’s kids.

Have a wonderful 2016!

Leave a Comment