East Chapel Hill has never been a football school, but first-year coach Mike Holderman, like his players, probably felt some measure of success was in reach when he arrived there last summer. He promised as much, telling The Chapel Hill News he was in this for the long haul. Holderman arrived on the coattails of a three-win season – a promising one by East Chapel Hill’s standards. But after Holderman’s 2014 team went 0-11, it was announced in June that Holderman, like his predecessor, would be leaving after just one year.
His departure can be seen as an ancillary casualty of his team’s attrition: A preseason squad of more than 50 players had dwindled to approximately 16 by the team’s final practice, largely due to injury. Three of the Wildcats’ 11 losses toward the end of the season were forfeits. There were simply not enough of them left to play football.
So what should a coach do when his team begins to disappear in front of him? Why did the school wait until it absolutely had to forfeit, apparently allowing injury to befall more than half its players before taking action? Would the carnage have continued unabated if the team had begun the season with more bodies to throw onto the field?
The biggest question is whether any high school football season is worth the damage it threatens to young minds and bodies.
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Commendable efforts are under way to better monitor hits and protect high school athletes from head injuries. We must also be prepared to say enough is enough before things get as bad as they did at East Chapel Hill.
Football’s proponents will often agree that the sport is dangerous – but so is life, they say. It’s something these kids will have to learn to deal with sooner or later, and coddling them for an extra four years won’t change that.
But given what we know now about concussions, this argument is wearing thin. Protecting teenagers’ brains, even for an extra four years, does make a difference. Knowing this, our fatalist attitude toward football’s risk appears to diverge dramatically from the way we police similarly dangerous teenage activities.
If the government and public schools have any claim to knowing better than teenagers and their parents – as they do by mandating school attendance, for instance – it is here. We accept that teenagers below a certain age should, for their own safety and that of others, have their driving restricted or closely monitored. How can we then justify allowing those same teens to play a sport where car-crash-equivalent collisions are nearly guaranteed? How is it that a 14-year-old needs nothing but his parents’ permission to put his brain and bodily health in immediate danger on the football field when no amount of parental say-so could award him a driver’s license or the right to drink alcohol?
It is, after all, these youngest players who are most vulnerable at the high school level, where the size difference between a ninth-grader and a senior can be comic. At schools with rosters as perennially thin as East Chapel Hill’s, coaches might feel they have no choice but to send an undersized player into a dangerously unfair match-up.
With this in mind, it might even be tempting to bulk up rather than scale back football teams confronted with mass injury. Realistically, I doubt East Chapel Hill had much luck growing its ranks after last season. But even if it did and goes on win to every game, it does nothing to address the inconsistency of approach implied in our acceptance of the sacrifices necessary to get to that point.
Football is undeniably exciting to watch, and it has value in the same ways other sports do: It provides its fans with a sense of unity and purpose and supposedly teaches its players to do difficult things in an environment where the disappointment of losing is supposedly the only consequence. Thousands of players and former players feel they are better people for having played football. Having never played, I take no issue with this.
But the consequences of young people playing football, win or lose, are far from abstract. There is nothing about football that renders the benefits of competition any better than other, less fundamentally violent sports – nothing indispensable that should protect it from frank discussion of its risks and decisive action to address them.
Henry Gargan is a recent UNC graduate and former opinion editor of The Daily Tar Heel.