As the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots prepare to face off at the Super Bowl on Sunday, a scandal about under-inflated footballs is still dominating headlines.
While that subject has been a trending topic on Twitter, it is just the latest in a series of controversies this season. So many recent stories about the nation's most popular sport have focused on domestic abuse and sexual assault allegations, as well as the dangerous effects of concussions and other long-term health consequences for players.
But there are also still young players who love the game, and who devote years of practice to pursue their dream of turning pro. Are they concerned about football's long-term health effects, or worried that its culture encourages dysfunction off the field?
Nahshon Ellerbe is an 18-year-old senior at Trinity Christian Academy. He has been a star running back and is also on the honor roll for his academic achievements. Those accomplishments have earned him a place at Rice University to study and play football.
I asked him what he thinks about the sport.
This conversation has been lightly edited.
What do you love about football?
It's a sport that's so easy to be passionate about. I just love the intensity of the game and the camaraderie that it brings. There's nothing better than a football locker room. It's easily my favorite place on campus.
How did you get into the game?
I was actually born in California, and I didn't move to Texas until I was 8. Up until that point, I really had no desire to play football. The idea scared me. I only wanted to play basketball, but my dad, who played [football] himself, signed me up anyway. Once I started, the fear was gone and I never really looked back.
This past year, headlines about the NFL involved health-related issues. Are you worried about concussions?
Football players at every level of the sport are getting bigger, faster and stronger. The evolution of the football player has made concussions an inevitable reality of the sport. For young athletes like myself, there's almost a "bulk up or get out" mentality. While technology is constantly improving to prevent concussions and make the game safer, the growth of the size, strength and speed of players is overwhelming.
I say prepare for the worst and pray for the best, because you never know. I've been lucky enough that I haven't been diagnosed with a concussion until this point — knock on wood — but I have teammates whose careers were cut short in high school from having two to four [concussions] through a short period of time.
As far as on the field is concerned, I can't afford to slow down. The game has one speed: fast. Any hesitation for fear of injury just puts me at a greater risk of being injured.
What do you think about the issues of domestic abuse that have been reported?
Last year was terrible for domestic issues in the NFL. In addition to the wrongness of it, I think that there's an unspoken responsibility to be a role model as soon as you get drafted into the league. There are millions of eyes on you constantly, and whether you realize it or not, you've inherited the position of mentor for a lot of young players like myself.
So as a young player, what do you take away from those stories?
The fall of a great man is far more recognized than his rise. When NFL "giants" like Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice are making headlines for negative things, people notice and it certainly casts a bad shadow on the sport.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The pre-Super Bowl controversy over deflated footballs is really one of the minor questions facing the sport. It is true that 11 of 12 footballs used by the New England Patriots had low air pressure as they won a conference championship last week. The Patriots have struggled to explain. That's true also. Over the weekend, Coach Bill Belichick offered a scientific theory, which was rebuked by Bill Nye the Science Guy on ABC News; All very compelling, but not really the big topic in football. A more vital conversation is taking place between a young football player and his mom. Among other things, they've been talking over the long-term health effects of playing our nation's most popular sport. They spoke with NPR's Michel Martin.
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Joining me now are Nahshon Ellerbe. He is a senior at Trinity Christian Academy in Addison, Texas, just outside of Dallas. He's been a star running back and an honor roll student there, and those accomplishments have earned him a place at Rice University, which he plans to attend next year to study and play football. Also with us is his mother, Roshounda Ellerbe. She is a third-grade teacher at Folsom Elementary School in the suburbs of Dallas. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.
NAHSHON ELLERBE: Thank you for having us.
ROSHOUNDA ELLERBE: Glad to be here.
MARTIN: Nahshon, let me start with you. What do you love about football?
N. ELLERBE: Football is an amazing sport. It's always been a part of my life, and it's always been something I've been passionate about. The intensity of football is definitely something that I think draws fan, spectators, but the best thing about football, in my opinion, is just the atmosphere, the family atmosphere. You grow close with a group of guys. You - you know, the blood, sweat and the tears, together it just makes for a really good atmosphere and the locker room is my favorite place on campus. So that's probably my favorite thing about the sport.
MARTIN: Roshounda, what about you? Mrs. Ellerbe, what about you? As a teacher yourself, were you ever concerned? Did you ever have any second thoughts about your son playing football?
R. ELLERBE: Well, I think every mom, when their son plays football, kind of have second thoughts. He's been playing football since he was 8 years old. And I get excited at football games, but part of my excitement - I get butterflies, you know...
MARTIN: But about what?
R. ELLERBE: I want to make sure that everything's OK.
MARTIN: What do you have jitters about?
R. ELLERBE: Well, and it's interesting - the jitters are not so much about if they're going to win or lose, but when your kid's out there playing an intense sport like football, you just want to make sure that all the boys have a good time and everyone stays healthy. And I think that's how every mom feels about the sport.
MARTIN: What about the headlines about all things that have happened, you know, off the field, like the ugly side of the sport? I mean, I don't - I'm sure you're familiar with all of them. I mean, it's scandals over bounties for hard hits, players who have been involved in criminal acts. I mean, professional players we're talking about, and also college players who have been involved in domestic violence incidents or there have been allegations of really ugly behavior toward girls and women. And then, of course, the ongoing concern that the physical price paid by players at all levels is just too high. Does that ever give you pause?
R. ELLERBE: You know, those are things that happen in our society on a daily basis. And we surround our kids and we support them and we raise them with integrity. And we make sure they're surrounded by good people who can, you know, pour into their lives and influence them in a positive way. His - he's had good role models. Every single coach he has had in his life has been an amazing role model for him. And I just think when your children are surrounded by positive influence you can't help but have positive outcomes.
MARTIN: Nahshon, what about you? I know you're very busy, you know, with your sports and with your studies, but do these headlines ever kind of penetrate into your conversations, especially with the other players, with your coaches, with your friends? What do you think about all this stuff that we've been talking about here?
N. ELLERBE: That's definitely conversation that comes up in the locker room, just the different things and, you know, who's who and who's doing what. And usually it's - the conversation is basically characterized as, you know, shock. There's shock and there's disbelief and there's concern among just, you know, players and coaches in as far as my high school locker room is concerned. And so there's the general understanding that those things are not OK and there's a general understand that something should be done about, you know, the headlines that are making waves and putting a negative light on the NFL and the sport as a whole.
MARTIN: Can I just ask - let me just push you, though, Nahshon 'cause, you know, you're almost grown. I feel like I can push you a little bit. Why is there shock at this point? I mean, when you've got year after year, when you've got people who have been accused of murder, in some cases have been convicted, people who are on trial even now, people who engaging in these acts - I know you saw the Ray Rice video.
N. ELLERBE: Right.
MARTIN: So when you think about that what does it make you think about? Does it make you think about your sport or do you feel like it's something else?
N. ELLERBE: Well, you asked why is there shock and I think you mentioned, like, the repetitiveness of just the repeat crimes and repeat offenders and things like that. And I think part of the shock is in the fact that it's so repetitive, that it keeps happening and that there continues to not be, you know, some type of solution that the patterns keep repeating themselves. And me personally I feel like it is an outside issue. I feel like the sport of football is very positive. I think, you know, people not only enjoy watching the sport, but they enjoy playing the sport.
Football's something that, you know, grandfathers and dads and kids, they play all throughout the family and they enjoy the sport. And so I think when you have negative things like that that shine a negative light on the NFL and college football, it kind of, you know, starts to put a damper on it. It poisons it a bit for the purists, the people who want to enjoy the sport for what it really is and what it really should be.
MARTIN: Nahshon, when people see you in your uniform, your Trinity Christian Academy uniform, and soon to be your uniform at Rice - and we wish you every good thing in your next - the next stage of your life - but what do you want them to see?
N. ELLERBE: You know, I hope that the product that I'm putting out on the field and off the field is something that people can be inspired by. That people can, you know, just say that that guy's doing things the right way. I just really want to be a role model for whoever feels like they need one. So if I can, you know, do positive things and help other people, you know, see the game of football in a positive light then I consider that a success.
MARTIN: I've been speaking with Nahshon Ellerbe, senior and star running back at Trinity Christian Academy, and his mother, Roshounda Ellerbe, third-grade teacher at Folsom Elementary School. That is in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
R. ELLERBE: Thank you for having us.
N. ELLERBE: Thank you very much.
INSKEEP: This is part of a great and vital discussion. Great person to lead it and tomorrow Michel will be in Dallas with our member station KERA for a live event on the ethics of football on and off the field. And you can join a live Twitter chat using the hashtag #NPRMichel. That's N-P-R-M-I-C-H-E-L. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.