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Porto: Political Football

Americans like to think of sports as an escape from politics. But recent polls show that America’s much-publicized partisan divide is reflected in our attitudes about whether or not we want our sons to play football. The New York Times reports that residents of liberal states are more likely than residents of conservative states to tell pollsters they don’t want their sons playing football.Reflecting this divide, the states that have experienced the sharpest declines during the past six years in the numbers of boys playing high school football all voted for Barack Obama for President in both 2008 and 2012.

Further evidence of this divide is revealed in a recent Rand Corporation poll that asked respondents how they felt about their children playing various sports. Respondents were most ambivalent about football, with just 55 percent approving of their sons playing, compared to more than 90 percent approval for every other sport named. The most intense opponents of football were Democratic voters who had graduated from college, only 32 percent of whom were comfortable with their sons playing football. The reason for their discomfort was the possibility of their child suffering a traumatic brain injury from repeated blows to the head sustained during football games.

A quick refresher on political philosophy shows that a partisan divide about whether children should play football is predictable. Ever since Thomas Paine, liberals have argued that society should marshal reason to solve problems. Therefore, medical research showing that football can cause traumatic brain injuries will likely spur liberals to prohibit, or at least discourage, their children from playing unless new equipment or rules can minimize the risk of injury.

Conversely, ever since Edmund Burke, conservatives have criticized liberals for putting too much faith in reason when, in actuality, passion, sentiment, and tradition are more likely than pure reason to produce good decisions. Indeed, conservatives love football precisely because it is infused with passion, sentiment, and tradition.

Considering this divide, nobody should be surprised if the game itself becomes a political “football,” as school districts debate whether or not to continue fielding football teams. I hope that if and when that debate occurs, Vermont school districts faced with the existential question about football will consider the evidence carefully and choose the option that best serves the long-term well-being of their students

Brian Porto is Professor of Law and Director of the Sports Law Institute at Vermont Law School, and author of "The Supreme Court and the NCAA: The Case for Less Commercialism and More Due Process in College Sports."
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