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.


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