A Safer NFL: developed by men, delivered by women

On December 6, 1998, my mother took me to see the 49ers take on the Carolina Panthers. I was 14 years old at the time, just beginning to develop an identity as a “man.” I don’t remember too many of the specifics of the game, save Wade Richey’s game winning field goal. What I remember the most is just something inconsequential.

After a 49er player fumbled, fans started letting out more boos than an Alicia Keys and Usher duet. As an avid fan of mob mentalities, I joined in, getting my Usher Raymond on, if you will. Then, out of nowhere, a forearm shiver from an adjacent seat rocked me onto my heels.

I looked over expecting to find Garrison Hearst had just trampled me on his way to a 96-yard touchdown run, but instead I found my mother in a Hearst jersey.

“We don’t boo other human beings, Scott,” she said. “Do you understand me?”

The message was clear: game or no, compassion wins.

This is a lesson of which the NFL and its fans are in desperate need. And there are no better teachers than women.

Involving women does not mean objectifying them in the way Bleacher Report has popularized. Rather, it is to foster engagement in the game by making them a part of it through either coaching or administrating.

This is not a novel idea. Ten years ago, the NFL commissioned Scott Lancaster, senior director of youth football, to engage young athletes who were either not interested in football or who had been jaded by the game’s overt aggression. Lancaster developed the “Fair Play” philosophy that substitutes play for skill development and coaching for coordinating. In some sense, he turned football into a game of inclusion.

But perhaps the most forward-thinking aspect of Lancaster’s “Fair Play” approach was the involvement of mothers.

Lancaster recruited 14 women to train as a part of the NFL’s Junior Player Development program. After more than 50 hours of in the classroom and on the field training, the women were put in charge of NFL-sponsored skills camps. The experiment was a huge success.

“The boys walked away (from the camp) learning a lot about the game,” Lancaster told the Christian Science Monitor. “The women were more nurturing (than men), which is very important in football, because you’re a team, a family, and women are just as concerned about the least talented player as the most talented.”

In an Op-Ed piece for the Chicago-Sun Times, Bears receiver Brandon Marshall illustrates the need for this type of nurturing in the football.

“In sports,” Marshall explains, “those who show they are hurt or have mental weakness or pain are told: ‘You’re not tough. You’re not a man. That’s not how the players before you did it.’”

“So your perception of a man or player gets distorted,” Marshall concludes. “By understanding the pain, we can replace the hurt with love.”

Female coaches can teach boys this much-needed healthy brand of masculinity.  Brooke de Lench, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, argues “Female coaches can teach male athletes that they don’t have to conform to society’s male gender stereotype by hiding their emotions, pain and injuries.”

De Lench continues, “a woman’s higher levels of serotonin, combined with her instinct to survive by avoiding risk, prompt women to be more careful about safety so as to avoid exposing their children to an unreasonable risk of injury.”

Perhaps the bigger difference in safety management, according to Lancaster, is that “women are not embarrassed to ask any question,” whereas men are. In other words, women are open to gaining a more thorough understanding of the game. They are more apt to understand the game less in terms of its physicality and more in terms of its nuance.

“Coaching football without training in the fundamentals is like teaching karate by watching Bruce Lee movies,” Lancaster told the Chicago Tribune.

Unfortunately, for youth football players, some coaches are ignorant to the art of the six-point progression of blocking. Their only training is derived from hazy memories of high school football and notes taken while watching professionals on Sunday afternoons.

The result is a game in which the dangers are amplified and a player whose bad habits could lead to serious injury as he matures. As Lancaster notes, “(the) pro game doesn’t translate well.”

“But teaching kids the proper techniques of blocking, tackling and defensive and offensive alignments can make it safer for them,” Lancaster says.

Though the NFL no longer offers the program, the results remains clear: women are the key to a safer NFL. It is really quite simple. And why shouldn’t it be? This is a game of human beings, after all.

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