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Prep school makes a good decision about football risks

St. George's School, a tony college-prep boarding school in Newport, R.I., made news recently when its headmaster, Eric Peterson, and football coach, John MacKay, declined to send the school's team out to play Lawrence Academy in a regularly sche...

St. George's School, a tony college-prep boarding school in Newport, R.I., made news recently when its headmaster, Eric Peterson, and football coach, John MacKay, declined to send the school's team out to play Lawrence Academy in a regularly scheduled game.

St. George's, where the football team is only one of 48 teams that the school's 360 students field each year, was hopelessly outmatched. The Boston Globe calls Lawrence Academy a "juggernaut;" the school was undefeated last season, winning most of its games by at least 40 points.

This season Lawrence has three linemen who weigh more than 300 pounds, including one 350-pounder. The starting linemen outweigh St. George's line by an average of 100 pounds per man. Five Lawrence players are committed to play for Division I colleges next year. In short, Lawrence Academy's team is fast, big and talented; St. George's stood little chance of competing with Lawrence, much less winning.

But the decision not to play had nothing to do with winning or losing. "This is strictly a safety issue," the headmaster told the Boston Globe. "We are trying to keep our kids reasonably safe in a game that can be terribly exciting but has risks."

Permit me to send a few words in the direction of these young athletes:

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Ballplayers, the first television report that I saw about St. George's' forfeit included short interviews with two parents who said that failing to go on with the game against overwhelming odds will teach you that you can merely walk away from the daunting obstacles that life will throw in your path.

Other commentators are talking about football as a rite of passage into manhood, like going on an Aboriginal walkabout or killing a lion. If you shy away from the contest simply because the opponents are bigger, faster and stronger than you are, how can you call yourself a man?

Ballplayers, don't fall for any of this. These are a couple of the many myths perpetuated by people who have never been expected to run headlong into someone who outweighs them by a hundred pounds and whose bench-warming days are long past.

To think of football as a test of manhood is to trivialize the complicated process of growing up. There are things for which a man might risk his health and even his life; moving a ball from one end of a field to the other should not be one of them.

I suspect that eventually you'll develop gratitude for the conscientious leadership of your headmaster and football coach, who put your safety ahead of the dubious virtues of marching unquestioningly into Lawrence's gridiron grinder.

Football is a fine and exciting game, but America is in blind denial about the physical toll that it takes on its players. The human body is resilient but ill-designed to withstand the violence of modern football. Knees and necks and brains simply aren't built for it.

In fact, the elite college and professional levels of the game rest on a foundation of debilitating injuries, many of them permanent. The statistics are impressive, but nothing makes the point like anecdote: On Oct. 16 Rutgers player Eric LeGrand suffered a severe spinal cord injury on an ordinary play near the end of a game against Army, leaving him paralyzed -- possibly permanently -- from the neck down.

Even the NFL is paying belated attention to the damage that thousands of blows to the head can do to the brain over the course of a career. And new research is discovering that the damage begins as early as college or high school.

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In spite of the carnage, the games go on. Young ballplayers like you continue to be encouraged to take significant risks with their bodies and futures by people who would never take those risks themselves. Do not feel discredited because your school had the wisdom and integrity to turn them down.

Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp@delmar.edu .

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