Opinion

Joe Mathews: If concussions a concern, why so many football games?

How many state champions does California need?

There’s a new answer to this question: 13. That’s how many high school football champions will be crowned this weekend during five state bowl games at Sacramento State’s Hornet Stadium and eight other games around the state. That’s a big increase from the five state champions we had in 2014, and 13 more than we had before the state bowl games were launched a decade ago.

Even in the largest football-crazy state of this football-crazy country, that’s an awful lot of football. Indeed, California’s ever-expanding high school football season now starts the last week of August and extends into the winter holiday break. And some teams seeking state titles this weekend will be playing their 16th games – the same number the pros play in the NFL regular season.

You may be surprised to read this, especially if you’ve listened to recent news stories and medical studies about the need to protect young bodies and brains from concussions and other injuries. Last year, California enacted a new law that imposed new limits on physical contact for school football teams; they can’t have full-contact practices during the off-season, and can hold only two full-contact, 90-minute practices a week during the season.

But those rules didn’t cover games. And so California’s high school football industry – with its coaches and players and even cable TV networks – continues to grow more rapidly than the state’s pension obligations.

To be fair, it isn’t merely the will to win driving this expansion. It’s also about the well-intentioned desire to include everyone. This latest expansion was fueled by complaints that the state bowl games included only a fraction of the state’s 50 sectional champions. So this year, the CIF voted to include all section champs in bowl games.

For football fans, that may sound like an exciting weekend full of possibilities. But California high school football is highly predictable. Most of the same high schools dominate year after year, in part because thousands of students routinely use liberal transfer rules to move to the schools with the best football programs.

Tellingly, this weekend’s signature game – the Open Division bowl between De La Salle High School, a Catholic school in Concord, and Centennial High of Corona in Riverside County – is a rematch of last year’s title game.

This year’s state playoff expansion comes at an interesting time. A new film on football concussions, starring Will Smith, hits theaters on Christmas. The film dramatizes the story of Bennet Omalu, the doctor who made discoveries about the impact of contact sports on the brain.

Omalu, now the chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, recently questioned whether kids should play football at all and suggested establishing an age of consent for contact sports: “We have a legal age for drinking alcohol, for joining the military, for voting, for smoking, for driving, and for consenting to have sex. We must have the same when it comes to protecting the organ that defines who we are as a human being.”

In the context of that sober warning, 13 state championship bowl games sounds like an unlucky number. The 50 schools in the state playoffs are already champions of their sections. Is it really necessary to expose them to more risk in the service of more championships? Would California really be diminished if it had no state football champions?

If Californians let these unnecessary games go on for even another year, we all ought to have our heads examined.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.

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