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Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Might golf be a safer suggestion?

By Farrell Evans
ESPN.com

As news trickled out recently about the Miami Dolphins' bullying case and Tony Dorsett's being diagnosed with having signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy likely due to head injuries sustained during his 12-year NFL career, I started to consider ways of pulling my 5-year-old son's interests away from football and pushing them in the direction of safer, less violent sports.

While the NFL is not in danger of extinction, its challenges -- particularly with on-field safety -- present an opportunity for sports like golf and tennis to lure some of those great athletes away from the gridiron and toward golf courses and tennis courts.

Many start football at the youth level. For boys all over the country, it was a rite of passage to participate in Pop Warner leagues. One of my fondest childhood memories is of suiting up for the first time in my full uniform as an 8-year-old for the Steelers in the Monroe County, Ga., Mite League.

It took me weeks to grow comfortable with the tight pressure of the helmet on my forehead. I learned the lyrics of every Al Green and Frankie Beverly and the Maze song on the car rides to practice with my dad. My first coaches were grizzled workers from my town's biggest mill.

I didn't need to read Buzz Bissinger's "Friday Night Lights" because I lived it from the time I could say my name. Football was king in my rural Southern town.

My son has the choice of playing football. He has been getting into a three-point stance since he was a toddler. Yet I'm going to push him toward golf, where the career can last a lifetime and the physical risks are minimal.

But the culture around golf must change for boys like him to pursue it over football and its mammoth popularity.

Close to 70 percent of NFL players are African-American. It's only that way because these men had access to the game from the time they were little boys, and they were inspired by legions of black players who came before them.

As William C. Rhoden wrote in "Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete," there is a conveyor belt for these young men to reach the pros from high school.

In golf there is no such apparatus, unless you grow up with access to a championship golf course with professional instruction and a support system with generous financial backing to attend the junior tournaments around the country.

Many NFL stars come from working-class, single-parent homes. How would their mothers put them on track to play on the PGA Tour?

In football, there are coaches from the youth level onward who will act as surrogate fathers for these young men, in the best cases teaching them lessons of manhood that their absent fathers didn't provide because they weren't involved in the lives of their children.

The disintegration of the black family is a larger issue that no sports program can fix. But the golf community can do more to attract some of these kids who never saw the game as a viable option, who never envisioned themselves on the first tee at Augusta National or walking across the Swilcan Bridge on the Old Course at St. Andrews.

There is no reason Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, with all his natural athletic ability, couldn't have been a great PGA Tour player. Peterson has been in the NFL for seven years, but a typical NFL running back survives fewer than three years in the league.

Eddie Payton, the director of golf at the historically black Jackson State University and a former NFL kick returner, is a major critic of the First Tee program, a youth development organization that was started in 1997 by the major golf bodies to use the game to teach kids from underserved areas things like life skills, such as honesty, integrity and sportsmanship.

"Kids should learn these life lessons in their schools and churches and from their parents and community people," Payton said. "We're not going to see more African-American players until we start focusing our efforts on developing better players."

Organizations like the First Tee can provide life skills, but they can also be more aggressive about identifying and nurturing young black talent to send through golf's conveyor belt to the PGA Tour.

Robert Andrew Powell spent a year embedded with a mostly black Pop Warner League in Miami. Luther Campbell, the local rap legend, speaking for African-Americans, told Powell of football, "We own this game," which became the title of Powell's 2004 book on that experience.

For more black kids to turn to golf and away from the brutality of football, they have to feel ownership of a sport they have felt excluded from over the years.

That Miami Pop Warner program and others like it across the country succeeded because the entire community was behind the spirit of competition and believed in the ways that football could foster the development of young men.

Parents take their kids to golf tournaments, but there is not the team aspect or the community involvement to foster the support system that many young children need to thrive at a high level.

The PGA Tour and the other major U.S.-based golf bodies should help local sports programs develop Little League golf to inspire children to play the game with the hopes that they will place golf on the list of sports that they dream of playing for a living.

None of this work will impede the progress of the next Jerry Rice or Deion Sanders, but it could lead to one fewer soul not remembering the location of his child's soccer game or contemplating suicide, as Dorsett recently admitted he had.

For golf, it could mean a bigger slice of the best athletes in the world and a PGA Tour that reflects a wider swath of society.