"What is right is not always popular. And what is popular is not always right." Russell Davis stands behind a podium, hands in his pockets, invoking Albert Einstein. He looks very much like a man committing small-scale political suicide—which, in all likelihood, he is.
It's a May evening in Las Vegas, Nevada. Davis, a 44-year-old public works employee, is holding a town hall meeting, discussing his candidacy for the Clark County School Board. He'd like to expand the school lunch program, offer more college prep courses, and explore building dorms for students who need housing. It all sounds innocuous, even boring, and none of it explains why Davis has appeared on local television and USA Today's website, nor why a camera crew is setting up at the back of the room.
Oh, and it definitely doesn't explain why Davis has been called a "dork," a "pussy," a "gay," and a "nanny state liberal" who's "almost as krazy as Hillary."
No, the reason Davis has attracted attention and ire is simple: he wants to eliminate public high school football. Friday Night Lights out. No more homecoming games, sweaty August two-a-days, and afternoon-in-the-auditorium pep rallies. Adios to a beloved American tradition played by roughly 1.1 million high school students nationwide (double the participation number of the next most popular prep sport, track and field), and by approximately 3,600 students in Clark County, the country's fifth-largest school district.
"When I decided to run, people said, 'Don't bring this up,'" Davis says. "They said, 'Get elected first. And then bring it up.'"
Davis loves football. He grew up going to prep games, and hopes that his favorite NFL franchise, the Oakland Raiders, ends up moving to Las Vegas. When Davis played sandlot football as a child, he liked to pretend he was Jack Tatum, the notoriously hard-hitting former Raiders defensive back nicknamed The Assassin, whose infamous helmet-to-helmet collision with opposing receiver Darryl Stingley left the latter man paralyzed for life.
Still, Davis wants to make the coming high school season the area's last. "Taxpayer dollars I do not believe should be spent on this," he says. "The human brain is not designed to play the collision sport of football. We do not have an airbag between the brain and the skull."
Football has a problem. The sport involves getting hit in the head, over and over, which can cause brain damage. People have been concerned about the game's inherent violence for as long as it has been played, especially when it comes to schoolchildren. In the early 1900s, both the godfather of modern football, Amos Alonzo Stagg, and the president of the University of Notre Dame called for abolishing the sport at the prep level. In 1909, the New York Board of Education banned it from the city's high schools.
Football's proponents countered that equipment and rule changes could make the game acceptably safe, and besides, no other sport so effectively turned effete boys into robust men. They won the argument—New York City's prohibition lasted a single season—and have been winning it ever since.
Over the past decade, however, medical science has discovered that football is more dangerous than previously believed, linking the game to neurological deficits and disease in NFL veterans as well as players whose careers ended in high school. Those findings have rekindled the old debate, with Russell Davis and a handful of others arguing football has no place in public education, where the goal is to nurture, not harm, young minds.
Russell Davis at his town hall meeting, discussing why he wants to abolish high school football. Photo by Patrick Hruby
Davis has two teenage children, a daughter and a son. They deserve better, he says. All children deserve better. They shouldn't be used as guinea pigs while scientists determine exactly how risky football really is; instead, students should be protected until researchers can prove the sport is acceptably safe. In the meantime, schools should spend their money elsewhere.
"If I were to place my child in a car twice a day, every year, and have them drive into a brick wall at 25 miles per hour, I would most likely be arrested for child abuse," he says.
From the popular television drama Friday Night Lights to recently announced plans to construct a 12,000-seat, $69.9 million high school football stadium in a Dallas suburb, high school football is undeniably popular—a cultural default as much a part of the American prep landscape as textbooks and prom. But is it right? Finishing his remarks at the town hall, Davis scans the room. There are 96 folding chairs, arranged in neat rows. With the exception of his campaign staff, his girlfriend, and a married couple sitting by the door, all of them are empty.
"Any questions?" he says. "Don't be shy."
Silence. Davis is believed to be the first school board candidate in the U.S. to run on a platform of banning football. Primary voting is 18 days away. Depending on how his five opponents fare, Davis figures he needs as many as 5,000 votes to get on the general election ballot in the fall.
So far, he tells me, he can count on three.
"Any questions?" Davis says.
Russell Davis announces his Clark County school board candidacy; high school football helmets. Photo illustration by Caitlin Kelly; photos courtesy Russell Davis (Davis) and by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports (helmets)
A few hours before his town hall meeting, Davis scribbles on a whiteboard, outlining a path to 5,000 votes. He's up against an incumbent, Linda Young, who has been on the Clark County School Board since 2008. Another candidate, Adam Johnson, has a coveted teachers' union endorsement, and has raised (and spent) over $30,000 on his campaign.
Davis doesn't have that kind of money. He does have a donation button on his campaign website, concussiongate.org. "Someone gave us $100," he says. "I was like, Wow, this is great!" Davis sighs. "But I'll probably give it back to them."
Davis didn't have to run for office. Between running a small business that gives bicycle bar crawl tours of downtown Vegas and his day job with Clark County, he's plenty busy. He could have just written a letter to a local newspaper, or spoken up as a concerned citizen at a school board meeting. "Here's what would happen," Davis says. "They would sit and listen, and thank me. And then they'd move on. If you want to effect change, you have to change public policy."
Davis graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas with a political science degree, and then interned for Senator Richard Bryan (D-NV) on Capitol Hill. In 1998, he ran for a Nevada state senate seat and lost. "I was a 26-year-old pup," Davis says. "I thought I could change the world." His current campaign is different. Davis hasn't put up any lawn or street signs. He won't be conducting a single poll—though in between snacks at a downtown food festival, he did ask attendees what they thought about banning high school football.
"People told us, 'You're fools, you're crazy,'" says Phil Pascal, a friend of Davis who is helping out with the campaign. "So we'd ask, 'OK, would you let your kid play?' And they'd say, 'Oh, hell no.'"
"So it's OK for other people's kids to get injured, but not mine?" Davis says. "I think that's complacent."
Davis grew up playing soccer. When he was young, colliding head-to-head with another player or catching a stray elbow to the skull was no big deal. "We'd get our bells rung, bounce right back up, and keep going," he says. But by the time Davis was coaching his own children—Isabella, 15, and Benjamin, 13—things had changed.
For decades, football was considered acceptably safe for children. Yes, the sport could break bones, shred ligaments, and knock players out cold, but hard-shell plastic helmets had made catastrophic skull fractures and brain bleeds rare. Debilitating spinal injuries and deaths were freak occurrences. A few high-profile NFL veterans like quarterback Steve Young had retired due to concussions, but for the most part former players seemed OK. Groups such as the American Medical Association called for age restrictions and outright bans on boxing. No such calls were made for football.
Everything shifted in 2002, when a Pittsburgh-based neuropathologist named Bennet Omalu examined the brain of deceased Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster and diagnosed him with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease previously found in boxers, colloquially known as "punch-drunk syndrome," and linked to repeated blows to the head. Football helmets, it turns out, do not prevent concussions. Nor do they protect the brain—a spongy, gelatinous blob that floats inside the skull—from being rattled by sub-concussive blows, the little hits that happen on every down, the ones scientists increasingly believe add up over time to produce lasting harm.
In 2009, Purdue University researchers studying an Indiana prep football team found that over the course of a ten-week season, players absorbed as many as 1,855 head hits of magnitudes up to 289 Gs—that is, 289 times the force of gravity, or nearly three times as forcefully as a dummy hits the windshield in a 25-mile-per-hour car crash. They also discovered that while athletes diagnosed with concussions performed poorly on cognitive tests and showed signs of dysfunction on functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of their brains—which was expected—a number of athletes who had not been diagnosed showed similar signs of impairment. "They looked just as bad or worse as the concussed kids," says Tom Talavage, a biomedical engineering professor at Purdue. "At that point, [one of my colleagues] asked if we were ready for the fact that we might have to kill football." Subsequent studies by Talavage's group and others have produced similar findings.
Purdue University researcher Tom Talavage. Via YouTube
While the science could often be complicated, Davis thought, the bottom line was not. Getting hit in head was bad, and pretending otherwise was worse. He began eliminating heading in Isabella and Benjamin's soccer practices and games, teaching players to instead trap balls with their chests. Last fall, the United States Soccer Federation released guidelines that barred children ages ten and under from heading and placed limits on the technique for players younger than 13. Davis checked with the coach of his son's middle school team. Would the district be following the new protocol? No, he was told. During one of Benjamin's games a few weeks later, Davis saw two boys jump for a ball. They smashed heads and collapsed to the ground. "Their coach came out, patted them on their butts, and said, 'Go out there and play,'" Davis says. "No one gave them a concussion test, and no one pulled them out. I was like, There has to be a better way."
Davis gave his daughter and son strict orders: under no circumstances do you head the ball. But he felt selfish. Who was looking out for other people's children, especially the ones in helmets and shoulder pads? Both USA Hockey and Hockey Canada had prohibited body checking for players under age 13. Some people, including Omalu and Baltimore Ravens tackle John Urschel, were arguing that football should follow suit, and forbid tackling for children younger than 14. In Marshall, Texas, a retired doctor named Jim Harris already had helped convince a Boys & Girls Club to end a tackle football program for 75 children between the ages of eight and 13.
Davis took note. Yet the more he learned, the more he came to believe that Friday nights couldn't be ignored. A 2013 study of 40 high school players in North Carolina found that they absorbed more than 16,500 combined head hits in a single season, while a NFL-funded National Academy of Sciences report released the same year found that prep football players are nearly twice as likely to suffer concussions as their college counterparts. Boston University researchers haven't just diagnosed CTE in the brains of deceased former NFL and college football players; they've seen the disease's telltale tangles of a neuron-killing protein called p-tau in six athletes whose gridiron careers ended in high school, including Nathan Stiles, a 17-year-old who died from a football-induced brain bleed, and Paul Bright, who died from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident at age 24.
"I think the whole mantra of flag football until [age] 14 is just a compromise for people who are afraid to address high school football," Davis says. "And I get that. Everyone grew up going to high school games. People are scared to have this conversation. Even my daughter was very nervous about it. She told me, 'Dad, I like going to games. I like hanging out with my friends.' It's part of America.
"But what's the difference between a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old getting hit in the head? We know that kids are sustaining 600 to 1,500 collisions per season. It's unavoidable that there's going to be damage to the brain."
A Clark Country school bus (YouTube); a football game at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas (photo by Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports); bioethicist Steven Miles, who has called for football to be removed from schools (YouTube)
Can that message win votes? Davis divides the Clark County electorate into two groups, high school football diehards and everyone else. The first group is a tough sell: coaches, boosters, parents of current players. "They're all in denial," he says. But the second group? Davis believes he can win them over, the same way he won over his friend Andy Schaudt.
Schaudt works for PostLaunch, a web marketing company that Davis uses for his business. When Davis approached him and a colleague with his plan—I'm running for school board, I'm going to ban high school football, and I need your help—the two responded with stunned silence. Yet as Davis explained his reasoning, Schaudt was intrigued. Like Davis, he played soccer growing up, and estimates he was knocked out "five or six times." He also used to work in health care, studying how medical devices were used—and misused—in the field.
Schaudt thought about his previous academic work at Virginia Tech on driver safety, and how hard it is to change gratifying but harmful behaviors like texting while driving. He thought about the adoption of seat-belt laws, and how society eventually learns to mitigate risk. He began to see parallels with prep football. "What sports are we funding?" Schaudt says. "Are they hurting or helping? The number of Americans that go on to have jobs in professional football is so small. So what are our schools pushing this for?"
Davis doesn't think that football should be outlawed, any more than boxing or mixed martial arts are illegal. If a parent wants to send their child to a private gym, or enroll that child in a private football program, well, it's a free country. Only don't ask schools to sponsor a concussion delivery system, and don't ask taxpayers to pick up the tab. Beyond abolishing high school football, Davis's platform calls for banning heading in soccer, instituting concussion protocol training for coaches in every sport, and forbidding Clark County teams from playing against outside schools that don't follow the same standards. "Schools have a mission of educating kids and protecting their welfare," he says.
Recently, Davis received a phone call from a current member of the Clark County School Board. The member was upset. What's wrong with high school football? Davis outlined his case, mentioning that Ivy League universities had eliminated tackling during in-season football practices. That should tell you something, Davis said.
"[The member] said, 'Well, Russ, that's the Ivy League. They're just concerned about education and the classroom achievement of their athletes,'" Davis says. "I was like, 'That's the point!'"
Phil Pascal campaigns for Russell Davis. Photo by Patrick Hruby
Steven Miles shares Davis's exasperation. A University of Minnesota bioethics professor and longtime physician, Miles co-wrote a 2015 editorial in the American Journal of Bioethics that called for the removal of tackle football from schools—high schools and colleges. Early in his career, Miles worked in the brain disorders unit of a Veterans Administration hospital in Minneapolis. He still remembers a presentation on dementia pugilistica, a disease afflicting prizefighters now known as CTE. "It was pretty scary," he says. "I could never look at boxing the same way."
Reviewing the scientific literature, Miles found no definitive proof that brain trauma suffered while playing youth football would inevitably produce the long-term problems suffered by some NFL retirees. There was plenty of evidence, however, that concussions and head hits were bad for high school athletes in the here and now, resulting in headaches, impaired memory, inability to focus and pay attention, absenteeism, and poor academic performance.
Playing football, Miles concluded, wasn't simply dangerous—it increased the risk that children will be lousy students. Moreover, parental consent forms were troublingly vague, justifying football participation with statements like everything in life has risks. "There was no information on the CTE issue, no mention that your chances of going pro are worse than a Hail Mary pass, no acknowledgement that medical policies don't cover disability, long-term care, rehabilitation," he says.
Miles' article was published shortly before the release of the Will Smith film Concussion, a fictionalized account of Omalu's CTE discovery. It drew national attention. The medical community, Miles says, was "uniformly supportive"—with one exception. "Consultants for football," he says.
What about prep football coaches?
"Yeah, I heard from a few," says Miles, who continues to give presentations based on his article to medical and community groups. "The initial comments were 'You're just going to take all the risks out of life' and blah blah blah, but more recently the coaches I've spoken with have been extremely thoughtful. They generally don't want to hurt kids. And they're grappling with something they honestly did not know."
Liberty High School football Rich Muraco. Photo illustration by Caitlin Kelly; photos courtesy Rich Muraco (Muraco), and by Patrick Hruby (Liberty High School athletic offices)
At first, Rich Muraco thought it was a joke. Shortly after Davis launched his campaign, Muraco, the athletic director and football coach at Liberty High School in Las Vegas, received a phone call from a USA Today writer who had covered his team's run to the Nevada championship game the previous season.
Hey, there's a guy running for school board and he wants to ban high school football.
"I laughed," Muraco says. "I thought that maybe it was a publicity stunt, someone doing something controversial to get free coverage. But then all of the local [television] affiliates came out and interviewed me."
Muraco sits behind a desk in his office, across from a framed football jersey signed by New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. He has been coaching football for 14 years, guiding Liberty to six regional championships and two state title games. It would be easy group him with the football-loving voters Davis believes are in denial about the sport's potential dangers—people like Kenny Sanchez, the football coach at Liberty rival and nationally ranked private school Bishop Gorman, who when asked about Davis by USA Today said, "Cheerleading has more blown-out knees and concussions than football has. Are you going to rule out cheerleading now? Can you not ride a bike anymore? What's next, soccer? Where does it stop?"
But pigeonholing Muraco would be a mistake. He moved from New York to Las Vegas to work as an elementary school physical education teacher, started helping the Liberty freshman football team as a favor to a friend, and had to be talked into taking the varsity job. He has a Strat-O-Matic football game on his shelf, and says his family won't play board games with him "because I have to win." Still, he doesn't live and die with the sport. Muraco considers himself an educator first, the sort of coach who makes sure his players have an all-you-can-eat spread of granola bars and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches waiting for them after school—because, he says, "too many kids would come and get the free or reduced-price lunch, then have nothing else until they got home at night."
Muraco cares about concussions. If he suspects that a player has suffered one, he pulls them off the field, even when they lobby to stay on. "Some kids get mad," Muraco says. "And that's a danger, because next time they may try to hide it." No player returns unless he's been cleared by a neurologist, and if anyone suffers two concussions in a single school year, they are shut down for the season. Muraco also warns his team about headaches, light sensitivity, and insomnia—all of which can be delayed symptoms of a brain injury. "We talk about being honest," he says. "You are not being weak or a wimp if you are having a problem with your brain. Speak up and seek help."
In the spring of 2012, a former Liberty High player's uncle committed suicide and was posthumously diagnosed with CTE. It was Junior Seau, the former NFL linebacker. "That was close for us," Muraco says. Last year, Boston University researchers found that former NFL players who played tackle football as young children were more likely to have thinking and memory problems as adults. Should youth football be banned? "I don't think it would hurt at all, really, if kids weren't allowed to play tackle before high school," he says.
And during high school?
"That's a hard question."
Muraco says he would never trade a child's health for a single win. Still, he sees a difference between Junior and his nephew Kimo—between nearly two decades of absorbing NFL-level hits to the head and a few seasons of prep football. He believes Davis's quest to eliminate the high school game is premature. "If it came to the point where it was undeniably dangerous—where the research was rock solid—I know for me, personally, I would have to say, 'All right, maybe it's not safe enough for high school kids, or shouldn't be in an educational setting,'" Muraco says.
"But where I take issue is that he's using NFL statistics and data to justify it, and those are the most elite people playing for a number of years at the biggest, strongest, fastest, most violent level. In my experience, high school is nowhere near that realm."
Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Junior Seau was diagnosed with CTE. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Just how risky is prep football, exactly? No one knows. Stories like that of Stiles—the 17-year-old diagnosed with CTE—are frightening, but rare. Studies like the ones being done at Purdue are suggestive, but far too small to be definitive. Talavage, the Purdue professor, believes that the sport can be made much safer by simply playing less of it; his research group has found that players who endure fewer than 900 hits in a season or 50 hits a week are much less likely to show signs of brain trauma. But he also worries that high school players may be especially vulnerable to long-term neurological harm because the brain doesn't fully mature until one's 20s—and in teenagers, areas associated with decision-making and impulse control are still developing.
"Given what we know, it kind of makes sense that if you get hurt during those age periods, it could affect the development of your cognitive and social capabilities," Talavage says. "What happens to the teenage brain, specifically, with contact sports is an absolutely critical question that needs to be addressed."
While researching his Journal of Brain Injury article, Miles spoke to University of Minnesota environmental health sciences professor Susan Gerberich, who had been studying contact sports brain injuries for decades. He had a simple question. Pretend I'm a parent. You're the doctor. Walk me through how you would inform me about football's risks so I can decide whether or not to let my son play.
"She looked shocked," Miles says. Gerberich couldn't answer.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under age 18 avoid the sport of boxing and the nutritional supplement creatine. It does not discourage youth tackle football. Steven DeKosky, an Alzheimer's disease researcher who worked with Omalu to identify CTE in Webster's brain, says that parents preventing their children from playing football is an "understandable overreaction, but an overreaction."
Doctors affiliated with the sport are more emphatic. In a Washington Times editorial, Julian Bailes, a medical advisor to the National Football League Players' Association and Pop Warner, and Joe Maroon, a longtime NFL advisor and Steelers team neurosurgeon, called concern over youth football concussions a "near-hysteria," noting that while roughly a million children play high school football every year, fewer than 200 CTE cases have been identified. Kevin Guskiewicz, a University of North Carolina researcher and member of the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee, allowed his sons to play the sport. He argues that the increased likelihood of childhood obesity and diabetes that comes from physical inactivity—including not playing football—is riskier than the game itself.
University of Minnesota neurosurgery professor and NFL consultant Uzma Samadani also lets her son play prep football. After reading about Miles, she authored a Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorial contending that football is less risky than skiing, bicycling, and horseback riding; that efforts to prohibit the sport distract from more preventable causes of brain injury such as gunfire and car accidents; and that because adolescents' still-developing brains make them prone to impulsive behavior, they need football in order to learn how to assess and manage risk.
"Ultimately, if we do not let our children play football, they may choose to skateboard off the roof," Samadani wrote. "This type of activity is what they are biologically programmed to do."
The Liberty High School team, playing football instead of skateboarding off roofs. Courtesy Rich Muraco
Historically, football has responded to injury concerns with reforms. Skull-smashing, rugby-like scrums gave way to forward passing and a less congested line of scrimmage. Plastic shells and heavy facemasks replaced leather helmets. Spearing blows and spinal injuries prompted an emphasis on head-up, see-what-you-hit tackling. Today, brain-injury awareness has led the California Interscholastic Federation to reduce full-contact practice time for prep football and adopt stricter rules to diagnose and treat concussions. Fifty states and the District of Columbia have passed youth sports concussion laws. Many high schools have purchased expensive helmets that purport to reduce concussion risk. USA Football, the NFL's youth arm and the sport's national governing body, has claimed its "Heads Up" safer tackling program does the same.
Is it enough? Again, no one knows. Most experts agree that less hitting is good, but the evidence for safer helmets is inconclusive. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that USA Football's Heads Up claims were unsupported by the same scientific study the organization had touted. Despite a century of tweaks, football's violent essence—players trying to knock one another prone—remains intact.
"When I watch the NFL on TV, I see players get up and wobble around and spin and almost fall down, and still their own medical and coaching staffs can't see they've had severe head injuries," Miles says. "It astonishes me. They can't protect the pros with an army of medical observers. They don't even have trainers for many high school football practices. And you don't even have to have a concussion to have brain trauma. So what can you say?"
Cedar Hill High School (Texas) cheerleaders (photo by Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports); Team USA at the high school football International Bowl (photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports); Grayson High School (Georgia) fans (photo by Dale Zanine-USA Today Sports)
Muraco doesn't read scientific journals, but he believes prep football is safer now than when he played. Back then, woozy athletes received smelling salts before heading back into games; today Liberty players are given computerized neurocognitive tests to help determine how long they should be held out of competition. (The effectiveness of said tests is hotly debated.) The team largely has eliminated hitting during practices. Muraco's coaches now teach "hawk" tackling—a rugby-style technique, popularized by Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, that de-emphasizes the use of the helmet as a weapon and has players use their shoulders and arms to wrap opponents and bring them to the ground. "I can't remember the last time I lost a starter to a concussion where he couldn't play for two to three weeks," Muraco says. "And we've had very few concussions, total, the last seven to eight years."
Nobody believes that prep football can be made completely safe. The sport's advocates believe that its rewards outweigh its risks. Football, they argue, teaches perseverance. Builds toughness. Builds men. From its earliest days, football has been intertwined with all-American notions of masculinity. In 1900, Chicago mayor Carter Harrison II said that "if you legislate against football and boxing, the next generation will be a generation of sissy boys"; in 1958, radio commentator Bill Stern lauded football as a Cold War bulwark against Soviet encroachment, stating that boys "like to hoot and holler and wave pennants, and if they can't do it at the football stadium, you may well be sure that they will do it in the [Communist] party cell."
Fifty-eight years later, little has changed. Former NFL player Kevin Green calls football "the perfect answer" to the "primal aggressiveness, passion and propensity toward violence" pent up inside some young men—boys who have gone on, Green writes, to become "the great soldiers who've protected us, the police who've enforced our laws, and the industrialists who've driven us to build and better the world around us." New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait lauds the sport as a supervised channel for boys' "chauvinistic belligerence," and a reminder that "not all teenagers are cut out for chess club." In a 2013 column for Sports Illustrated's MMQB website, Arizona prep coach Jeff Scurran wrote that football "produces tough hombres" and is the "last bastion of discipline" in a nation that accepts mediocrity in "almost every part of society." Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh contends that football not only teaches lessons no other sport can—sorry, tennis—but also saves lives.
"It's remarkable how as you move forward in time, the belief that football instills these particular masculine virtues in boys really does persist," says Kathleen Bachynski, a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences who wrote her Columbia University dissertation on the history of youth football as a public health issue. "There's a longstanding belief that boys have this sort of inherent violence, and if you don't channel it into something organized and supervised, it might turn into something dangerous. Pro-football arguments have always been driven by these moral concerns."
John Harbaugh believes football saves lives. Photo by Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Davis invited Muraco to his town hall meeting. The coach declined. He has seen the good the sport can do. Muraco treasures the relationships he has built with his players, some of whom have returned to Liberty High a decade after graduating to help out with the team. He loves seeing young men work hard at the sport—lifting weights and studying game footage after school—and then applying the same effort to their coursework. "Football keeps a lot of these kids out of trouble, on track academically," he says. "Without sports in their life, they may not get that high school diploma."
A football team, Muraco says, creates a sense of community. Of belonging. Liberty High's student body is diverse, a melting pot of whites, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Pacific Islanders. "Socio-economically, we have some kids who live in public housing, and some kids who come from close to million-dollar homes," Muraco says. "But everyone gets along. No fights. I attribute that to our sense of pride. Our school is kind of known throughout the area, and a lot of that is related to football. People aren't going around bragging about how their [Advanced Placement] test scores are."
Eliminate high school football, Muraco says, and all of that will be lost. The band. The cheerleaders. The color guard. The pep rallies. The homecoming dance. "Your football program sets the tone for your school year," he says. "Good team, good school spirit, kids behave better on campus, the games bring the school and community together. Without that, you'd lose a huge chunk of your identity and culture."
A high school band performs before the 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony (photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports); Eagle Stadium in Allen, Texas, which cost $70 million (Wikimedia Commons)
John Gerdy disagrees. A former Southeastern Conference associate commissioner and the son of a prep football coach, Gerdy has been around the sport for most of his life. Like Davis, he believes it's too dangerous for schools, regardless of well-meaning efforts to make the game safer.
He also thinks that football is a lousy investment.
"It's by far the most expensive sport," says Gerdy, executive director of the nonprofit Music For Everyone and author of Air Ball: American Education's Failed Experiment with Elite Athletics and Ball or Bands: Football vs. Music as an Educational and Community Investment. "So much time, effort, emotion, and energy is spent on it, too. But we have to ask a fundamental question about what kind of return we're getting."
High school football isn't cheap. A 2011 Chicago Tribune analysis found that some Chicago–area schools spent more than $100,000 a year on the sport. A Dallas Morning News study of 31 Dallas–area school districts published the same year found that schools spent an average of almost $230,000 on football; one district, Plano, spent just over $442,000 per school.
Where does the money go? In Chicago, the Tribune discovered expenses ranging from $1 million turf fields to $2,500 video scouting software to $250 helmets; in Dallas, the Morning News calculated that the average head coach's salary was almost $91,000. Last year, AL.com reported that the highest-paid prep coach in Alabama, Josh Niblett, made $125,000, while eight other coaches in the state earned at least $100,000 annually.
Four years ago, a school district in the Dallas suburb of Allen, Texas, spent $60 million on a 18,000-seat high school football stadium—and then spent another $10 million a year after the building opened to repair cracking concrete.
At Liberty High, Muraco says, he receives about $8,000 per year from Clark County for football—more than the roughly $1,500 he's given for each of the school's other sports, but not enough to cover $60,000 in annual expenses, including a video scouting system, equipment bags, travel suits for his players, and $2,500 for footballs. Fundraising by player parents and concession-stand sales at home games make up the difference. "You don't have to spend that much," Muraco says. "I think a bare-bones budget for football could be $15,000 to $20,000. But we're trying to be an elite program."
Prep football can be a break-even proposition, or even help fund other student activities, but that's not the norm. To wit, of the more than 20 school districts that provided prep football financial records to the Dallas Morning News in 2011, just three reported a net profit over a five-year period. Eleven districts lost more than $2 million, and the Dallas district was nearly $11 million in the red.
When Davis was planning his school board run, he considered following the money. How much was being spent on high school football in Clark County, which has 33 teams? What else could schools facing budget cutbacks do with those dollars? "We decided against it," Davis says. "We are talking about the health and safety of kids. I didn't want the conversation to come down to the economic aspect."
Gerdy is less conflicted. Education funding is finite, he says, and post-Great Recession cutbacks by cash-strapped state governments have hit schools hard. More money for football means less money for things like computers and textbooks. For every dollar spent on the sport, shouldn't educators demand commensurate returns?
Last year, Gerdy wrote an article for Trusteeship, a magazine aimed at university and college board members, that compared football and music programs in junior high and high schools. Music, he argued, fosters individual creativity; football focuses on winning, and places important decisions in the hands of adult coaches. Music has widespread, cross-gender appeal; football is basically for a small group of boys. Music is a lifetime participatory activity; playing tackle football after age 30 is an excellent way to end up in an emergency room.
In the classroom, Gerdy noted, music programs have been shown to have a direct impact on improved math, writing, reading, logic, and foreign-language skills. By contrast, investing in football yields the occasional future NFL quarterback. While both activities can build character—teaching discipline, persistence, and teamwork—only one can do so without repetitive head hits and multimillion-dollar judgments against school districts via football-induced brain injury lawsuits.
"If you were keeping score like in a football game, the final wouldn't be close," Gerdy says. "It would be like 55-20. You get a much better return from music. Football heaps a tremendous amount of resources on a few elite kids, and pushes everyone else to the sidelines to watch. And we're doing this in one of the most obese nations on the planet!
"As parents, teachers, board members, we have to ask: Is football meeting all the justifications that we have for it? And if not, then what is our responsibility?"
Author and school football critic John Gerdy. Courtesy John Gerdy via Twitter
Is high school football necessary? Four years ago, the Atlantic's Amanda Ripley reported, the school district in Premont, Texas, was in trouble. State officials were threatening to shut it down for financial mismanagement and academic failure, and budget shortfalls already had led to the closing of a middle school campus and a mold-infested high school science lab. To cut costs, superintendent Ernest Singleton took a drastic step. He suspended all sports, including football.
Singleton had done the math: Premont prep football cost about $1,300 per player, while actual math instruction cost less than half that amount. By eliminating athletics, he saved $150,000, which allowed him to give teachers raises. Reaction to the move was largely incredulous, and a handful of students, including one football player, transferred to schools where they could keep playing sports.
For the students who remained, however, everything changed. The Atlantic reported that in the school's first semester without football, 80 percent of the student body passed their classes, compared to 50 percent the previous fall. About 160 people attended parent-teacher night; just six showed up a year earlier. A former quarterback for the Premont football team told the magazine that instead of practicing the sport for ten or more hours a week, he was able to "focus. There was just all this extra time. You never got behind on your work." Administrators noticed students as a whole were better behaved and more attentive in class. Even Richard Russell, a history teacher who had coached the school's football team for two decades, said, "Learning is going on in 99 percent of the classrooms now, compared to two percent before."
Gerdy understands the thrill of athletic competition; he was an All-American basketball player at Davidson College. Similar to Davis, he wants to take the high school out of high school football, but the game itself can go on. How? By following the lead of basketball, swimming, and baseball—youth sports dominated by high-level club and travel teams. Privatize prep football, Gerdy argues, and let the $10-billion-a-year NFL pick up the tab for training its future workforce and fan base.
And if that's not enough? If schools still need the football-infused sense of community that Muraco describes? Gerdy thinks there's a way to square that circle, too. A way to capture all of the sport's benefits while eliminating its risks. To preserve football's grace, beauty, and athleticism, and still cut costs.
"What's wrong with flag football?" he says.
Russell Davis campaigns door to door in Las Vegas. Photo illustration by Caitlin Kelly; photos by Patrick Hruby (Davis), courtesy Russell Davis (flyer)
Two weeks before the Clark County primary election, Davis walks from house to house in a north Las Vegas neighborhood, trying to hand out campaign flyers—the same ones he was giving away in the parking lot of a nearby Walmart, before store security shooed him away.
Most doors remain shut. A few residents wave Davis off. Good luck. No thanks. He's used to rejection. A month earlier, Davis called his parents. It was Mother's Day, but his father, Mike, wanted to chat. Mike had been reading online articles about his son's proposed high school football ban. More specifically, he had been reading the comments on those articles.
"Wow, Russell," Mike said. "They called you a vagina!"
"Dad, I'm a Nazi and a communist too," Davis said.
On election night, the incumbent Linda Young retained her school board seat. Davis received 1,182 votes—roughly eight percent of the total number cast, placing him fourth out of six candidates. He was disappointed, but also proud. "We always talk about banning football like the five stages of grief," Davis says. "First, denial. Then anger. Now I think we're entering the bargaining stage—the Ivy League schools not having tackle practices, Pop Warner eliminating kickoffs, the NFL penalizing head-to-head contact. People are afraid to bring this up, but it needs to be a debate. Because this is coming."
Thirty-five years ago, a Catholic bishop named Walter F. Sullivan banned tackle football at the Virginia grade schools under his purview. His biographer later said that Sullivan believed it was the most controversial and unpopular thing he ever did—and he once told a military crowd that working on nuclear weapons was immoral. Today, people like Monday Night Football analyst John Gruden, ESPN radio host Danny Kanell, and sports-tier cable pundit Jason Whitlock complain of a cultural War on Football, with the nation's favorite pastime unfairly besieged by liberals, nanny-staters, agenda-driven scientists, the New York Times, and other shadowy forces.
Only that couldn't be farther from the truth. In Texas, local governments have approved two more $60-million-plus prep stadiums. In Illinois, a federal judge dismissed a class-action concussion lawsuit against the state's high school association, not because teenagers weren't suffering serious brain injuries but because imposing broader financial liability could potentially harm the game, even "causing it to be abandoned." When a high school assistant coach wrote a column for Sports Illustrated stating that he struggled to rationalize putting children in harm's way and that he believes it is only a matter of time before medical research buries football under the "undeniable truth," he did so anonymously, like some sort of Middle Eastern political dissident.
The high school in Premont, Texas, that saved money and boosted academics by dumping football? This fall, it brought the sport back.
America loves football. Davis believes that we love our children more. He plans to run for the school board again; in the meantime, he has been lobbying Young to hold a public hearing on prep football. His old boss in Washington, Senator Bryan, had a favorite saying about campaigning: Give me one person, and I've got a speech for them. If Davis ever does get elected—if Americans ever turn out the lights on Friday nights—it will happen the same way any major change happens, political or otherwise: one mind, and one vote, at a time. "This is going to be an enormous hill to climb," Davis says. "It's like telling people, 'Hey, sorry, but you can't drive anymore.'"
'Monday Night Football' analyst Jon Gruden believes that there is a War on Football. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
On the morning Davis goes door to door, only one man wants to chat: a retired technician named John Stephens, who happens to be watering his plants. Stephens' children have long since graduated high school, but he still pays attention, and he still votes. The biggest issue facing local schools, he says, involves a cross-dressing man he recently met at a nearby grocery store. So, what restroom does he use? This goes on for about ten minutes, until Davis finally interjects.
"I'm running on an issue I feel strongly about. Protecting kids in contact sports."
"One way to do that is to ban high school football."
Davis makes his pitch. Stephens nods some more. "That's gonna be hard," he says. "But I would not debate you in saying that it shouldn't be done." When Davis finishes talking, Stephens asks him for a flyer. "I might even decide to vote for you," he says. "Tell you what, if anybody I know says they are voting for you, I won't tell them not to. How's that?" Stephens laughs. Davis hands him a piece of paper. It's a start.
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