As an Atlanta Falcons fan, it’s hard to like anything coming out of the camp of our main division rivals, the New Orleans Saints.
But there are exceptions. When Saints quarterback Drew Brees comes up with a rather clever plan to save football, for example.
It’s no secret football has been suffering. Mark Cuban predicted its death from overexposure a few years ago (I think he’s wrong, and that became an interesting conversation on Twitter that should be revisited some time). Cuban has recently doubled down on those comments; but, as a basketball team owner, he has a vested interest in talking up the demise of the most popular sport in the country. And of course there’s the recent dive the NFL has taken into politics with Colin Kaepernick leading the protest (and now the lawsuit) wing, the player’s union associating with some heavy political hitters, and even the announcement this week that the League has gone libertarian with their public support of criminal justice reform. All of this is to say that it’s reasonable to think many, many people would prefer their Sunday Funday be divorced from politics.
Then of course, there’s the very real concern over injury and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that is exacerbated and increasingly linked to the head shots that so many professional players experience as a work hazard. As this headline from the Chicago Tribune put it in September: “Want to Save Football? Make it Safer.”
Which is exactly what Brees wants to do. At least for the young ones, and until they are old enough to play tackle football. He hopes playing the safer version early will ease parental concerns and cement in the kids a love for the game. And he’s doing it by taking an active role in the founding, coaching, and support of a flag football league in his adopted Louisiana. Behold the birth of Football N’ America:
Brees, 38, played flag while growing up in Austin, Texas, before moving on to tackle football in high school and at Purdue University. He credits flag with jump-starting his love of the sport. “I went to a small school,” Brees says. “Flag is all they offered.”
But why was one of the NFL’s biggest stars getting involved in a flag-football start-up while he’s still playing?
Some of it, I learned, is personal: Brees and his wife, Brittany, have four children under 10, and Baylen and Bowen had already started playing flag football. (You may remember Brees holding Baylen during the Saints’ Super Bowl celebration in 2010; he was the toddler in the noise-protection headphones.) Brees also adores flag as a sport and wants to build a national program that could be to football what Little League is to baseball.
But Brees’s other motivation is more urgent. He confides this to me later in the night, as a string of children and parents approach and ask for photos.
Drew Brees is worried about the future of football.
“I feel like football is at risk if parents feel the only option for their kids is tackle,” he says.
He’s right to be concerned, as participation rates in high school have fallen — not by much, but fallen still. And with the almost constant media attention to NFL protests and traumatic brain injury and the high-profile injuries of superstars like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, football needs a public relations win.
That’s what Brees hopes to accomplish.
To Brees [it’s] worth fighting for. “I feel like football is something that’s truly American,” he says. “It would be terrible if it goes by the wayside because people are afraid to play it because they don’t think there is a better option.” He looks at the children chasing one another on a perfect New Orleans night.
“This is a better option.”
Speaking on behalf of those of us who also love the game, I’d like to say thank you, Drew Brees. Even if you do play for the Saints.