Will 'Obama Effect' Finally Make Football Safer?

By Justine Hendricks
Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports


President Barack Obama is less than one week into his second term in office, but he’s already speaking out about one of the nation’s hot button issues: player safety in football.

In an interview with The New Republic, Obama, an ardent football fan, said that if he had sons, he would question whether to allow them to play the sport, knowing what we do about the dangers associated with the game.

“I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players,” Obama said.

This isn’t the first time the President has made headlines for his remarks about the nation’s favorite pastime (sorry, baseball).

In 2008, just a few weeks after he was elected President, Obama told CBS’ 60 Minutes: “I’m going to throw my weight around a little bit” to get a playoff system in college football.

Sportswriters and fans had been clamoring for years for a more fair way to determine a true “national champion,” and less than four years after Obama lent his support to a playoff system, the university presidents and conference commissioners voted to implement the first college football playoffs, beginning in 2014.

Obama’s statement in favor of playoffs didn’t create the change in the system, nor did he spend much of his time in office lobbying for it. Rather, his sentiment mirrored what many were already thinking.

His thoughts on the safety of the game, particularly among players who are not being paid in exchange for their sweat, blood, and brain injuries, strike a similar chord among many parents.

Many young parents are grappling with the terrifying possibility that their young sons will want to play football when they get a little older. Do they read reports on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and tell their kids to pick a different sport? Or do they swallow their fears, say a prayer, and sign them up, even though research has shown that each routine hit – I’m not even talking about the scary ones – carries roughly the force of a minor car crash?

Or, as Obama suggests, might we find some middle ground, some combination of better equipment and stricter regulations that will keep the next generation of young football players safer?

After years of ignoring a growing body of research showing that football can be dangerous, debilitating, and yes, even deadly, the NFL has finally begun to crack down on helmet-to-helmet hits, tackling defenseless receivers above the shoulders, and other things that many consider “just playing football.”

The public has become more aware of the risks thanks to the efforts of former NFL players concerned about what the sport did to their bodies and minds, but the repeated hits and potential for injuries aren’t limited to professionals.

“You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on. That’s something that I’d like to see the NCAA think about,” Obama said.

The NCAA instituted several rules changes prior to last season designed to increase safety, but measures like forcing players who lost a helmet to sit out at least one play were often unnecessary, while players like Arizonas Matt Scott continued playing despite displaying symptoms of concussions.

There has also been a movement to reform the scholarship policy and offer multi-year scholarships instead of one-year deals, to prevent players from losing their aid for various reasons – one of which should include career-ending injuries.

Ultimately, though, in order to benefit the greatest number of kids, the change has to start below the college level. The younger the brain, the more potentially devastating a serious hit can be. And if parents – and players – start demanding a safer sport from the start, they’ll be better equipped to play safer football at the next level.


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