SI columnist doesn’t like having “sports sociologists” commenting on football and concussions

A Sports Illustrated columnist takes issue with some recent comments from a sociologist about the future of football considering the growing knowledge about concussions:

Jay Coakley, a “sports sociologist” at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, recently said to a New York Times reporter, “”Football is really on the verge of a turning point here. We may see it in 15 years in pretty much the same place as boxing or ultimate fighting.”

A few things about that:

(1) Can we do a story on this topic now without input from a “sports sociologist”?

(2) That’s crazy.

That puts the NFL in a nice, hedge-rowed suburban box. That’s not where the NFL lives.

I haven’t done a study. Maybe someone has. But I’ve covered the NFL for close to 30 years. It is not Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. A majority of its players — and certainly, its stars — did not grow up with free and easy access to golf courses, tennis courts or any of the other options that parents evidently will be turning to now. I did a book with the former Chad Johnson. He grew up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, host of the pre-Super Bowl riot in 1989. Chad wasn’t exactly hanging out at Doral, practicing flop wedges.

Chad is more typical of the league than not. This isn’t to say parents or guardians of kids playing football in places like Liberty City are OK with their charges getting concussed. It’s to say that opportunities there are constricted, but the talent is not. If you want to declare, as Coakley did, that football faces UFC-status, you must also ignore the sociology of the game. Which is a strange thing for a sociologist to do.

A few thoughts:

1. I’m not sure what this writer has against sociologists. Jay Coakley is a sociologist who has written a lot in the sociology of sports, including being a co-author for a textbook on the subject that is now in its 11th edition. Perhaps the writer doesn’t think sociologists are qualified to talk about this specific subject? Perhaps the writer doesn’t think academics can really talk about sports? Both of these ideas seem silly: sociologists of sports do study things such as these and perhaps have more data and evidence to argue on this topic than the accumulated observations of journalists.

2. The writer argues that Coakley is suggesting football is more of a suburban sport (remember: a majority of Americans live in suburbs) while he suggests more NFL players come out of more desperate urban situations and will continue to see football as one of the only ways out, concussions or not. Both commentators could be right: perhaps there will always be some people who will want to play football while those with other options, given their class and income, choose other sports or vocations. But, having a sport with only lower-class urban residents could still change the sport; at the least, talents like Tom Brady would never become part of the game.

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