Will the Government Step In and Reform Football?

There are a lot of people who believe that football needs to address the safety issues that have the potential to cripple the sport, both in the literal and figurative sense.

President Barack Obama is among them.

In an interview that will appear in the February 11th edition of The New Republic, President Obama says that he is a fan of the sport but that if he had a son, he would think long and hard about it before allowing him to play the game.  The President believes that the negative impact that the game has had on players, which includes everything from paralysis to concussion-related dementia, might make the game too unsafe and that the sport itself needs to take steps to reduce the violence.   

Because these words come from the president, a debate has been sparked over whether or not the government will step in and put pressure on the game’s power brokers to make football a safer sport – and whether or not it is their place to do so. 

Believe it or not, this would not be the first time that the government reformed football.  In fact, the game may not have survived at all had Teddy Roosevelt not intervened just after the turn of the 20th century.  Back then, the violence in football was so great that 19 people died and 137 suffered serious injuries playing the game in 1905 alone.  In an effort to curb such brutality, Roosevelt called a summit in which he urged the leading football authorities (which became the forerunner to the modern NCAA) to implement radical rule changes, including the legalization of the forward pass and the establishment of the neutral zone.  Deaths and serious injuries declined during the following two seasons, and another round of reforms in 1909 essentially created the foundation of the modern game.

And let’s face it:  the government’s last foray into the world of professional sports also proved to be a great success. 

Back in 2004, Major League Baseball was still dragging its feet in implementing a meaningful drug testing policy.  A system was gradually being put in place, but many felt that the number of tests and lack of severity of punishments would do little to deter players from using PEDs.  So a Congressional oversight committee decided to step in, bringing forth several major leaguers to give testimony and creating pressure on both the players and owners to add some teeth to the system.  By 2006, baseball had negotiated what remains the toughest anti-doping policy in American team sports. 

It is also no coincidence that, with this issue all but settled, MLB’s last two collective bargaining agreements have been passed without so much as a hint of a work stoppage.

Of course, it is fair to question whether or not the government should be involved in any issues related to professional sports, as they are private enterprises (wink wink) that have the ability to govern themselves.

But President Obama’s concern is not over the NFL, which is made up of well-compensated professionals who belong to a strong labor union.  Instead, he is more focused on college football, whose participants do not receive anywhere near the same level of compensation but still endure the same physical risks. 

Add in the fact that over 85% of FBS football schools are publicly-funded institutions, and it’s easy to see where the government’s role is far more justified in the overseeing of college athletics.  

But let’s be clear on one thing:  President Obama did not call for the federal government to step in and make changes to the game.  What he did was raise questions about the safety and long-term viability of the game, particularly for those who are not professionals.

Still, improving safety for America’s youth is clearly in the best interests of the government.  It would not be surprising if the feds did step up the pressure on the sport’s power brokers to push for reform.  And considering their history of success on such issues, maybe this would not be such a bad thing.