Olympic football? There’s work to do
Peyton Manning has thrown his support behind the movement to make football an Olympic sport.
“There’s still one thing left for me to accomplish. That’s winning a gold medal,” Manning said in a 2008 video for weplay.com
Four years later, the chances of Manning ever quarterbacking what would be considered the NFL’s version of a Dream Team remain just that — a dream.
The chief of the top US youth development program says Manning’s future great-grandchildren have a more realistic chance of vying for Olympic gold than any generation before them. And even then, there are no guarantees football will ever be played on such a worldwide stage.
“I think we have substantial challenges just like rugby has to ever envision our traditional American football in the Olympics,” USA Football executive director Scott Hallenbeck told FOXSports.com.
That doesn’t mean Hallenbeck and other like-minded advocates have abandoned the cause for Olympic inclusion of America’s most popular game.
With NFL support, USA Football and the International Federation of Football continue to push for the sport to gain recognition from the International Olympic Committee. IOC approval wouldn’t mean acceptance into the Olympics. But it would provide a first step toward future Olympic sanctioning as well as a strong endorsement that football has grown enough globally to warrant championships for both men’s and women’s teams in other international competitions such as the Commonwealth and Pan-American Games.
A men’s tournament consisting of teams from Australia, France, Germany and Sweden was held at the 2005 World Games but not staged at the 2009 event in China.
“(IOC recognition) would give football more credibility in the sporting world and maybe help get attention so American people know that football is played around the world,” said Sweden-based IFAF president Tommy Wiking, who is still waiting to learn whether last year’s IOC application will be approved. “The football is not as good as the NFL’s but it’s on a decent enough level to be IOC recognized.
“Usually around the world, sports in the Olympics or IOC-recognized get more attention by the government ministers of sport and the national Olympic committees of each country. That provides a chance of getting more funding.”
Such financial backing is needed for significant long-term growth because of inherent expenses like equipment, salaries of support staff, travel costs for tournaments and the like.
The IFAF already has 62 member nations on six continents. Three types of football — flag, beach and tackle — are promoted with heavy emphasis on college and under-19 men’s and women’s teams.
Hallenbeck said the IFAF and USA Football are trying to build “sustainable models” for player development.
“You need to have a pyramid structure where there are more kids playing on the youth level than at the under-19 level and adult levels,” Hallenbeck said. “You can’t continue to backfill with 17- and 18-year-old (converted) rugby and soccer players. You have to have a consistent, standard approach to education, proper fundamentals and drills with an emphasis on safety.”
Because of soccer’s popularity, kickers were once the only European players signed by NFL teams. That is slowly starting to change. Sebastian Vollmer played high school football in Germany and caught the eye of college scouts at a 2004 global championship held in San Diego. He is now New England’s starting right tackle.
New York Giants defensive tackle Markus Kuhn, a 2012 seventh-round pick, is following in Vollmer’s footsteps as the second German native ever drafted. Kuhn began playing football in Germany at 15, which is the youngest age group for league football, and began playing at North Carolina State at age 21.
More international talent like Vollmer and Kuhn could be coming stateside. Hallenbeck estimates that 300,000 male and female athletes participate in sanctioned leagues outside the US with a lion’s share coming from Canada. Japan established its national federation in 1936. A European federation was formed in 1976 with Germany boasting a solid participation rate.
Wiking projects IFAF expansion to more than 100 countries within the next five years. That would include China. Other sports leagues like the NBA, Ultimate Fighting Championship and the NFL itself are already trying to make inroads into an untapped country of more than 1.3 billion citizens.
Another burgeoning market is best known for another type of football. Wiking claims soccer-crazy Brazil has grown from no football teams in the past five years — “I really mean nothing,” he emphasized — to 120.
But that South American country with a population of 30 million-plus also embodies the challenges IFAF and USA Football face in trying to plant the seeds for long-term growth.
Steve Specht, who is the head coach at Cincinnati high school powerhouse St. Xavier, traveled to Brazil in April as part of a USA Football contingent that included former NFL linebacker Rocky Boiman and 2012 first round draft pick Luke Kuechly. Specht said the game remains in such infancy there that he quickly scrapped plans to open the clinic with a power-point presentation detailing such intricacies as blitz schemes and fire-zone pass coverage. Specht and another acclaimed high school coach (Chris Merritt of Miami Columbus) were instead asked to explain tackling basics and even how to properly grip a football to throw.
“As the clinic went on we got into some pretty technical things that they were pretty awed by but excited about at the same time,” Specht said. “At the end of it, people wanted to take pictures with Chris and me. I thought, ‘This must be what it’s like to feel like a rock star,’ because the game is so new to Brazil.”
Atlanta Falcons backup tight end Michael Palmer had a similar experience when he recently spent a week in Serbia working with the Kraljevo Royal Crowns. Palmer said he was told that football is the fastest-growing game in Eastern Europe and that all major NFL game telecasts air in Serbia. Potential coaches and players from nearby towns attended the clinics because they want to start their own programs.
Palmer admits to being surprised at the quality of football in Kraljevo and that there “were quite a few kids we thought could definitely play in college.” But he added that the Serbian programs are “very much behind on the mental game like why you call certain plays and pass and run concepts.”
USA Football and IFAF both offer online videos of football basics that they hope will allow for better coaching and the teaching of fundamentals like how to properly tackle. But as more youth participate, some of the safety issues currently surfacing in the U.S. will inevitably do so elsewhere.
Palmer said the teams he met with in Kraljevo didn’t wear pads their first two years of existence. Not all equipment internationally is up to par or as readily available like in the U.S. either.
That is especially worrisome when it comes to helmets and the role they are supposed to play in concussion prevention. Major injuries or even fatalities connected to faulty protective gear could have a chilling effect on international development stemming from parents and governments with concerns that the sport isn’t safe enough.
“We’ve taken on responsibility to push health and safety to every one of our members,” said Hallenbeck, who is also the IFAF treasurer. “In India, there are maybe five or 10 teams but we stress that they take the same risks as anyone when the helmet and shoulder pads are on so they have to do things the right way.
“The number of people playing worldwide is small enough that concussions haven’t proven a major issue yet. That doesn’t mean they won’t as we grow this game, so we have the opportunity to do this the right way on the front end of the development cycle.”
Another potential deterrent to IOC approval: The spat between the NFL and NFL Players Association regarding human growth hormone testing. Haggling has kept both sides from adopting a program that would have approval from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which provides certification for Olympic athlete testing.
“It directly hurts us,” Wiking said. “You can’t think the IOC doesn’t know what happening. They know exactly what’s happening. They would like to see (testing) in all sports in the US.”
The obstacles in ultimately becoming an Olympic sport are even greater. Wiking said staging the customary 11-on-11 style of football is highly unlikely unless a network partner wants to foot a massive expense for television rights.
Olympics executives may balk even then because of how many other sports are played with more global appeal as well as the logistic and security concerns that would come with adding hundreds of male and female football players. The 2012 Summer Olympics are capped at 10,500 athletes from 200 countries for those reasons, Wiking said.
For IOC approval, rugby tweaked its traditional 22-player rosters (15 starters and seven backups) in favor of “rugby sevens” for men’s and women’s teams that is played on smaller fields. After a 92-year absence, the sport will return to the Olympic summer games in 2016.
“Right now, the cost of security at the Olympic games alone rivals the cost of putting on the games,” said Hallenbeck, who has a background with the US Olympic Committee and now-defunct Goodwill Games from the 1990s. “Even a six-team competition, which is probably not enough, there would be a huge number of athletes and the delegation that comes with that.”
So what gives IFAF and USA Football hope that their sport can someday gain Olympic status even if using a flag or 7-on-7 model, a la some US high school football teams?
“Look at other sports that were American from the beginning like baseball, basketball or to some extent ice hockey,” Wiking said. “I think we’re seeing the same development. All the people who say, ‘No, it’s not going to happen,’ I’m fine with that. But if you look at any of those other sports, they were probably saying no 30 years ago and things like the NBA in the Olympics would never happen.”
An NFL initiative to expand globally after the failure of NFL Europa — a spring developmental league that drew dwindling interest before playing its final games in 2006 — has enhanced football’s profile. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wants to begin playing two regular-season games in London starting in 2013. The St. Louis Rams are already committed to contests there over the next three years. The Buffalo Bills recently extended their agreement to stage one home game a year in Toronto — which has a vast international population among its 5.5 million residents — through the 2017 season.
The NFL is sponsoring a collegiate flag league for university students in China. The NFLPA also is seeking to branch into international markets for merchandising opportunities.
Goodell has said that he wants NFL revenues to grow from $10 billion in 2010 to at least $25 billion by 2027. Wiking believes there is only one way to hit that goal.
“They have to go international,” Wiking said. “I wouldn’t be afraid of having more games overseas. Why not 10 abroad?
“I understand there are only eight NFL (regular-season) home games and home fans would probably not want to see their team traveling to Brazil or London. But if you want to go internationally and increase awareness, you have to travel.”
Such NFL expansion seems unlikely for the short term. The same for the possibility of allowing NFL players to compete in the Olympics like those in the NBA and NHL if football was added to the ranks of basketball and hockey because the summer games fall directly during the preseason.
Football was played as a demonstration Olympic sport at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. When an attempt to match college powerhouses Yale and Southern Cal failed, two all-star teams were fielded with recent college graduates.
A future US Olympic squad could ultimately consist of college-aged players or pro castoffs. But the assumption that the U.S. could field subpar talent and still win a gold medal may not be the case later this century. The US under-19 squad lost earlier this year to the IFAF world team, 35-29, in the third annual International Bowl.
“I know the majority of the (IFAF world team) were from Canada so they have a leg up on the rest of world. But just watching them play, the speed of the game has changed for those guys,” said Specht, who is the US under-19 coach. “There’s better coaching and the players are more fundamentally sound then when I first got into it (in 2009). It’s real exciting for me personally and neat to be a part of seeing this develop from the ground floor.”
The next question is how high the ceiling is for football itself.
Alex Marvez and co-host Amani Toomer interviewed Michael Palmer on SiriusXM NFL Radio.