Football and I go way back. I played the game for 10 years, up through high school when I started at guard for a district champion. Those years were a major formative influence on my life, building character lessons about teamwork, sacrifice and loyalty. As a boy, my Sundays revolved around our hometown NFL franchise. And today my autumn Saturdays revolve around my Division I alma mater.
But neither am I blind to how football has changed and to what we’ve learned about the dangers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy from repeated blows to the head.
This puts me in a classic dilemma. Cognitive dissonance occurs when you hold two conflicting opinions. Resolution requires you to change one opinion and strengthen the other.
Do I embrace the game and minimize CTE? Or do I reject football as too violent? This dissonance is even more personal when I consider my grandchildren. Do I encourage them to suit up and gain the life lessons that meant so much to me? Or do I side with the Concussion Legacy Foundation’s “Tackle Can Wait” campaign that urges parents to postpone tackle football until their children are 14?
Then, too, football has changed. When I was a boy during the Baby Boom, we all played in vacant dirt lots and paved cul de sacs. Injuries were common. Parents would rather their sons play tackle with adult supervision, protective gear and rules. Back then, coaches taught us to block and tackle by leading with our shoulder, not our head.
Vince Lombardi was an American hero. Football was about his ethic of self-sacrifice. At the professional level, there was no free agency. Our favorite players became community figures who got local jobs in the offseason. I still have a trophy autographed by a player who spoke at my first youth football league awards banquet.
I understand that free agency is more fair to players. And I get that college players benefit from the transfer portal and being paid for use of their name, image and likeness. Yet even as these developments reduce player exploitation, they’ve also changed the game. Football today is much more about self-expression and money.
This brings me back to my cognitive dissonance – and an opportunity to illustrate how cognitive dissonance theory applies to other issues of national and local concern.
In this election season, some Republicans and Democrats are facing a cognitive dissonance. Most Republicans resolved their conflicting opinions about a morally flawed leader by deciding to back Donald Trump. Others like myself support moderate conservative principles. We resolved our dissonance by joining the Never Trump side. Meanwhile, some Democrats are conflicted about the leftward direction of their party and are pondering the independent No Labels movement.
Theory predicts that once you resolve a cognitive dissonance, one way or the other, your resolution hardens and becomes fixed. Our civic discourse today is so polarized because our politics constantly force us to choose between two dissonant opinions, either one of which we might otherwise justify: Vote for a candidate who is morally flawed but backs your positions on the issues? Be a purist on abortion or explore workable compromises? The list goes on.
As for football, I resolved my cognitive dissonance by changing my opinion about youth sports. After discussing the question with my adult children and their spouses, I’m ok that my grandchildren will likely never play the game as I did. Yes, football helped build my character. But there are other ways for my grandchildren to build character. And with what we know today, perhaps ignoring scientific evidence and dismissing known risks aren’t good life lessons.
But at the scholastic, collegiate and professional ranks, players know the risks and made an informed choice. I still love the game. And with apologies to Cowboy, Texan, Aggie and Longhorn fans, this season I’ll cheer as loudly as ever for my Washington Commanders and Clemson Tigers.