Saturday, October 31, 2009

Murders, head injuries, and assorted violence -- Is it time to cancel high school football?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

Last night, 16-year-old Melody Ross, an honors student and track and field athlete, was shot to death at the football game between rival Wilson High School and Long Beach Poly High School in Long Beach, California. The shooting took place at Wilson High School, which you may be slightly familiar with if you saw the Freedom Writers movie or read Erin Gruwell's The Freedom Writers Diary. The school serves some of Long Beach's most upscale neighborhoods, but is no stranger to violence by students and even, unfortunately, by a teacher or two. Poly High School, the oldest high school in the district and the alma mater of both Snoop Dogg and, well, me, serves the "inner city" neighborhoods. Poly High has also had its share of violence; my senior year, I was responsible, for example, for the yearbook's obituary page--and that was 16 years ago.

It's not yet known if the shooters who fired into the post-game crowd were students. One of Long Beach's newspapers, the Press-Telegram, reported that parents complained about the lack of Long Beach Police Department presence at the game. The security for the event, according to the Press-Telegram, included three Long Beach Unified School District safety officers, 19 campus security officers from schools across the district, 10 administrators, and 15 teachers.

Here's a thought: Any high school that needs 37 security personnel plus city police department support at its football games knows it has a problem with violence. Any high school that has more than three dozen security personnel and still ends up with three young people with gunshot wounds--two men were also wounded--needs to reconsider having football games at all.

Parents know the district has a problem. In addition to complaining about the absence of LBPD officers, parents worry about violence in Long Beach schools. The Press-Telegram cited a parent's observation that families have actually moved out of the city to keep their kids out of Long Beach's high schools.

Folks, it's long past time to call off high school football games in Long Beach and in other violent school districts.

In calling for the cancellation of football games at high schools with a recognized pattern of violence, I have undoubtedly raised some readers' hackles. Some of you will argue, as does Sue Cooley, that football is actually an antidote to violence:

For example, an individual who is involved in the football program at school is less likely to be involved with alcohol and drugs, as this would have a negative effect on one's performance. In the same respect, an individual who is involved in such a program would have less time to become involved in such activities that may lead to violence. The athlete is not left unsupervised after school, as he or she is required to practice and compete on a daily basis. This results in less time to become involved with such negative situations.

In other words, I see high school football as a positive alternative to violence. It offers participants a means of channeling their energy into something positive. Contact sports are not examples of violence. Violence does not occur as a result of competition and hard work.

But I didn't say that we should cancel football--just the games, or at least evening games where it's more difficult to monitor the crowds milling around in the dark outside the stadium. If football fans get violent, or if games are magnets for violence by non-participants--if high school students (or anyone) is dying, then the games need to go. The latest incident is not an isolated one; there have been multiple reports of violence at football games, including a brawl at a Los Angeles-area high school that involved 100 students. The fact is that while schools are getting safer overall, incidents of violence at football games are increasing.

Because let's be honest: Football is violent in multiple ways. As it is coached and played today, football promotes physical violence on the field that transcends the game play. Increasingly, football is coming under scrutiny for the long-term head injuries that collisons engender--and not just in NFL and college football, but also in high school games, as NPR reported yesterday. Indeed, Malcolm Gladwell equates football's violence with that of dogfighting. In an online chat following the publication of that article, Gladwell had this to say to a high school football coach:

Both you as a coach—and, as importantly, people like me, who are die-hard football fans—need to consider the possibility that the game is irretrievably harmful. It’s way too early to decide that yet. But I think we have to commit to following what the science tell us—even if it means walking away from a game we love.

In addition, high school football players and wrestlers are far more likely than non-athletes to get into violent altercations.

There are countless school-sponsored extracurricular activities in which teen participants and fans do not die and that do not result in violence. Schools need to consider new revenue models that will allow them to both bring in the funds that football games have been generating (but only at significant risk of student health and safety) and pay for additional productive and creative activities, including sports that do not promote violence on the field and off.

When teens are threatened by gang violence, parents, police, school administrators, clergy, and others step in to change the contexts in which teens live. Why aren't we doing the same with the culture of violence perpetuated by football players themselves, by fans at games, and by people outside of the games? It's time to reconsider our priorities and values.

Your thoughts?