ORLANDO, Fla. — One by one, former NFL coaches and players, the director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and even a U.S. senator came to the lectern last weekend to deliver the same stern warning: Football is under attack and your job is to change the narrative.
The game, they insisted at the annual conference of USA Football, the NFL-funded national governing body for the sport, is vital to the American experience, essential for its survival, and it does not have a health and safety problem as much as it has a messaging problem.
“If we lose football, we lose a lot in America,” said David Baker, the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, who was one of the keynote speakers. “I don’t know if America can survive. That’s why you’re so important to what we’re doing. That’s why America needs to huddle up.”
These were the true believers in just about everything about the gridiron, from its leather-helmeted roots to the high-tech 21st century edition of the game. Preaching largely to the choir, the speakers urged about 1,000 youth and high school football coaches and administrators to assure parents the game is not as dangerous as the neurologists and naysayers claim, and that the lessons about discipline and teamwork playing football provides far outweigh the risks.
“It does come with some risk,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who noted that he played football and has coached his sons’ youth teams.“You know what else comes with some risk? Life.”
With the Super Bowl on Sunday, the NFL is about to finish one of the most trying seasons in its centurylong history. The league was pulled into a polarizing debate about players protesting during the national anthem. Television ratings fell for the second straight year, including in the playoffs. Players were knocked out and paralyzed on national television, renewing concerns about the game’s safety.
Not everyone is as flip as Rubio when it comes to assessing the dangers of the game. The number of children who play tackle football has dropped significantly during the past decade, though participation rates have fallen in many sports for various reasons, including the popularity of video games and the trend of children specializing in one sport.
For years, the NFL, with $14 billion and counting in revenue, brushed aside safety concerns, and even created fake science to discredit the growing body of research that linked the repeated head hits to long-term brain disease. Then participation in youth football began to slide. The league awoke to the idea that the pipeline of potential players and future fans was in jeopardy. In 2014, the NFL gave $45 million to USA Football to spread the gospel of football to jittery moms and dads.
The group has introduced a flurry of initiatives, from teaching coaches how to get children not use their helmets as weapons, to introducing a modified version of tackle football, to holding clinics for moms to reassure them that their children were not in mortal danger.
“The biggest risk is the mental and emotional safety to those who are playing it,” said Trent Dilfer, the former NFL quarterback. “The player safety concern is real, but it pales in comparison.”
Mark Murphy, chief executive of the Green Bay Packers and a former NFL player, said the current moment was crucial for the sport.
“I don’t want to sound like President Trump, but the liberal media has got football in its cross hairs,” he said.
Murphy added that said the sport’s leaders had to make the right decisions to make the game safer but added, “it is a mistake to focus solely on the risks associated with football and not to focus on the tremendous benefits.”
The pronouncements came as researchers continue to publish studies showing a correlation between the total number of years one plays tackle football and the likelihood of developing brain disease later in life. State legislators have introduced bills to bar youth tackle football. Some school districts and youth leagues are dissolving teams because of a lack of players.
So, amid the dozens of seminars on football strategies during the three-day conference here, youth football coaches and administrators heard from speakers about ways to combat what they said is an unfair perception that tackle football is too brutal for children to play.
“We have to combat the negatives with positives,” said John Sprinkle, who four years ago helped start a spring youth tackle football at the First Baptist Church Indian Trail near Charlotte, North Carolina.
The speakers made an occasional reference to concussions, but almost no one mentioned chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease linked to repeated head hits that is a far bigger risk to the sport. Few experts on brain injury were invited to speak, only a parade of fellow coaches, players and cheerleaders for the sport.
As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has done for years, the speakers tried to dilute the danger by noting that children can get hurt playing other sports, too.
Tell parents the dangers can be managed with better equipment, rule changes, alternatives like flag football and modified games with seven, instead of 11 players, the speakers insisted. Scott Hallenbeck, the executive director of USA Football, said the game was evolving, its leaders were getting better at learning and “following science wherever we can.”
Fearful that football could turn into boxing, a once-popular sport that fell off the media map, USA Football, and the NFL are now pushing flag football as a safe way to get children to play some version of the game. A few miles from the USA Football convention, there was an NFL-sponsored flag football tournament for teams from around the country.
On the sidelines, Reggie Neal, his wife, Lynnette, and their 10-year old son, Braylon, were watching a game. Reggie played football and now coaches in his son’s tackle football league in Palm Beach County. He remembers the days when “you grow up thinking it’s all about the big hit.”
Those days are gone, he said, and that is not a bad thing. Football is facing challenges, he acknowledged. The movie, “Concussion,” was a wakeup call for many parents, he said. If coaches do not address those fears, the game could be in jeopardy.
When he and other coaches were told in coaching clinics to learn more about player safety and concussions, “we wondered, why are we doing this,” he said of the training courses. But, he added, “We have to get the public to know we’re addressing this.”