State of play

With news of long-lasting impact of concussions, a series of domestic violence arrests, a high school bullying scandal and young players dying on the field, football experienced what may prove to be one of its most consequential seasons in the fall of 2014.

That’s according to Kostya Kennedy, a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and editor who is now editorial director for Time Inc. Books.

“In some ways if we look back at football and what its future will be, the tipping point may well be that fall of 2014,” Kennedy says.

The Larchmont resident’s new book, “Lasting Impact: One Team, One Season. What Happens When Our Sons Play Football” (Liberty Street), documents that tumultuous fall through an unlikely source: New Rochelle high school football.

Kennedy followed the Huguenots throughout its 2014 season, observing training camp, practices and games and interviewing players, coaches and parents.

Kennedy has written best-selling books about Joe DiMaggio and Pete Rose.

With this new book, Kennedy says covering the high school level allowed him to view the everyday decisions parents and students are grappling with when it comes to football.

“The big issue with football right now is its place in society,” Kennedy says. “Do we want our sons playing the sport, given what we now know about its nature? So much of that conversation takes place at the NFL level. I wanted to look at this more at the ground level.”

While Kennedy describes the decision for each parent on whether their child should play as deeply personal, he dives into the different risks and benefits of the game.

The game helps young men develop a work ethic, commitment and time away from iPhones and video games, he says.

“The positives of football were really on display throughout,” Kennedy says. “You really see what football can do to bridge gaps and bring people together.”

The type of bonding the sport provides can be especially valuable to a community like New Rochelle, which Kennedy described as having a “gulf between the haves and have-nots.” The game brings people of both backgrounds together, in part because of how much players rely on each other.

“If you’re playing baseball and you’re in left field and miss a ball, it hurts the team, but the right fielder isn’t going to get hit in the face,” Kennedy said. “If I’m playing football and I’m supposed to be blocking for you and I miss, you’re going to get flattened.”

That’s part of what brings a team together, but it’s also a part of the risk football poses to the young men who play it. As awareness of the prevalence and long-term impacts of concussions has grown in the NFL, high school teams have taken notice as well. Kennedy’s book details how schools are attempting to deal with the danger.

“There is a tremendous awareness of it, which is on the good side,” he says. “But what you can really do about concussions is not a whole lot. There’s no helmet that can prevent or even seriously diminish the risk. You’re going to have these accidents.”

The string of domestic violence arrests that severely damaged the NFL’s reputation in the 2014 season had an impact on New Rochelle. The most prominent domestic violence arrest that year was of Ray Rice, who was seen on video released by TMZ knocking his then-fiance Janay Palmer unconscious in a hotel elevator. Rice grew up in a housing project in New Rochelle. His father was murdered when he was a year old. He led the football team to a state championship in 2003 and had since donated money and equipment to the school. Following his arrest, he was invited by New Rochelle coach Lou DiRienzo to a game. DiRienzo had coached Rice a decade earlier and was a major figure in his life, Kennedy says.

“DiRienzo was right on top of Ray as far as, ‘This is what you need to do, you can come to our game, but you’re also going to be getting counseling, you’re gonna be working on it, making sure you fix this and it doesn’t happen again,’” Kennedy said.

The decision to have Rice on the sidelines drew attention to the school, prompting coverage on national TV and in The New York Times.

“Nobody is apologizing for the behavior and no one was acting as if it was OK,” Kennedy says. “But the response was ‘Hey, he was part of this football family.’”

Rice later completed the terms of a pretrial intervention and a judge dismissed the domestic violence charges. Rice married Janay the day after he was indicted.

Kennedy says that in many communities, participation in football, along with many youth sports, has started to show signs of decline. And while part of that is competition with social media, another part of the problem for football has been concerns about its safety and reputation.

“I think it’s the No. 1 most important issue, period, for (the NFL),” Kennedy says. “‘How do we continue to have people play our game?’ There was a time when boxing and horse racing were the top sports. These things change. I think it is of the utmost importance for the NFL to pay attention to these issues with as much as dedication and creativity as they can.”

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