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Monke: Play football, but play smart

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Today, another football season ends. No other season will ever be like it — and I don’t say that in the way you think.

The game America has made not so much its pastime but its tradition is an ever-changing entity.

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In some ways, it has to be. I mean, would you still watch it if the forward pass remained illegal? Would the game even exist today had that rule not been changed?

As we enter what could be a memorable Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and their NFL-best offense against the Seattle Seahawks’ No. 1-ranked defense in the first cold-weather Super Bowl in decades, football is beginning to show signs of change.

Much of that change is in efforts to make the game safer as the science of concussions becomes clearer and scarier.

The NFL has already tweaked the way its teams kick off, moving them up 5 yards and all but eliminating kick returns when a game has two good kickers. Now, they’re talking about changing the way extra points are taken and possibly even eliminating kickoffs and even hard tackles. It has made a huge effort to penalize “targeting” tackles, even though instant replay shows officials only get those calls correct about 50 percent of the time and many hard hits are perfectly legal tackles.

Meanwhile, parents are keeping their boys away from the sport because of concussion and other injury-related fears.

The numbers don’t lie. While the National Federation of State High School Associations says football participation isn’t down at the high school level, participation in youth football is concerning to many involved in the sport. Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football organization, announced in November 2013 that participation declined nearly 10 percent from 2010 to 2012.

That same month, President Barack Obama told a New Yorker reporter, “I would not let my son play pro football.” He expanded on it, saying that if he had a son, he would not have been allowed to play the game at any level.

All one has to do is look to youth baseball for an example of what happens when kids stop playing the game. Fewer American boys play baseball today than ever before and now fewer Americans are in the major and minor leagues. Meanwhile, the sport is becoming more popular internationally and is less popular here.

Most men in North Dakota began playing football in the seventh grade. In the past decade or so, however, youth leagues began forming and kids now start in the fifth grade — much as they do in other states. In Texas, tackle football starts as young as age 6.

Football is inherently a dangerous game.

But let’s examine how safety and injuries affect those who play the game.

When I was in the seventh grade, I fractured a vertebrae in my neck playing football. I don’t know how — it was an injury that wasn’t discovered until a couple days after — but it happened. And I’m still here to tell you it happened. I’m fine.

I have a friend who was a starting quarterback in high school and college. He sustained what he believes were multiple concussions in his playing career. Although he may be one of the stranger people I know — at times, he seems like a living cartoon character, though he was like that before his concussions — he’s also one of the most successful. He owns his own business and does better financially than most everyone I know.

While injuries happen in football, it is also a sport that helps shape its participants into better people.

Some of the best, most successful people I know grew up playing sports.

Through sports like football, they learned the values of teamwork and the understanding that life is measured in wins, losses and, yes, sometimes ties. They know not everyone can win every award or get a first-place trophy. (That’s a column for another time.)

Perhaps football’s improvements need to come at the most basic levels in the youth leagues.

Football coaches I’ve spoken to over the years have made it a priority to teach kids how to tackle properly and safely. They preach not to tackle by leading with their head because it’s the best way to hurt not only other players, but themselves.

The NFL’s “Heads Up Football” program is on the right track by providing tools for teaching coaches and players how to play the game properly. But it needs to be embraced nationwide before we can see a real change.

Coaches at all levels should talk to players — and their parents — about not trying to emulate what they see in the NFL or in college games.

Football doesn’t need saving. It just needs people who can teach kids how to play the game the right way.

Monke is the managing editor of The Dickinson Press. Email him at dmonke@thedickinsonpress.com, tweet him at monkebusiness, and read his past features and columns at monke.areavoices.com.

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Dustin Monke
Monke came to The Dickinson Press in July 2006 as the newspaper's sports editor and was hired as its managing editor in March 2013. During his tenure at The Press, Monke has won multiple awards for sports reporting, feature reporting, column writing, page design and photography. He has been a key member of The Press winning the North Dakota Newspaper Association's General Excellence and Sweepstakes awards in 2009 and 2012, as well as the Press' Sweepstakes win in 2013. As the newspaper's editor, he writes a Sunday column, contributes feature stories, designs pages and oversees the day-to-day operations of the newsroom and editorial staff.
(701) 456-1205
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