Isn't it about time America banned soccer? Not because of British hooligans or the vuvuzela that has now made it into your local dollar store, although Heaven knows soccer has plenty to answer for on both those scores. No, the question at hand is whether soccer should be banned because of the other costs it imposes on society.
This comes up thanks to a little story from a few weeks back about a new study finding that "heading" a soccer ball can lead to traumatic brain injury. The damage is not so severe that players will need to be institutionalized. At worst, some of them will end up talking like George W. Bush. This is still not something to be wished on anyone.
Okay, so perhaps we don't need to ban soccer outright. Perhaps we should only require players to wear helmets. But what about sports in general? In the aggregate, they cost society a tremendous lot of money.
According to the National Center for Sports Safety, more than 3.5 million children receive medical treatment for sports injuries every year. Sports and recreation account for a fifth of traumatic brain injuries among young people, which the CDC says have increased 60 percent in the past decade. Overall injury rates for various sports are surprisingly high: 28 percent of youth football players get hurt. So do a quarter of all youth baseball players, more than a fifth of all youth soccer players, and even 15 percent of all youth basketball players. Even gymnastics is responsible for tens of thousands of injuries a year.
And those are just children's injuries; we haven't even gotten to the middle-aged players of handball, tennis, and golf who wind up in the emergency room. But the CDC reports that "more than 10,000 people receive treatment in the nation's emergency departments (ED) each day for injuries sustained in" sports, recreational, and exercise activities. "At least one of every five ED visits for an injury results from participation in sports or recreation."
Obviously, this imposes huge costs on society. Those injured players who are insured drive up premiums for everybody. Those who are not insured receive charity care, which drives up hospital rates. People who play sports are engaging in risky behavior that hurts us all, for their own selfish enjoyment. Somebody needs to put a stop to this.
If you think the preceding paragraph is a barrel of 180-proof rot, good for you. But this is precisely the sort of argument that is being made in other areas of what is subversively known as public health.
We are told, for example, that obesity costs in the U.S. now stand at about $170 billion, second only to the social cost of smoking. Obesity is commonly referred to as an "epidemic," and is being used to justify all sorts of intrusions into personal life. Matters have now reached the point that an Ohio social-services department has taken a boy from his family because he is too fat.
The federal government also is trying to reduce the amount of salt Americans consume. In September the FDA requested comments "relevant to the dietary intake of sodium as well as current and emerging approaches designed to promote sodium reduction." Too much salt is bad for you, but not all salt is bad for you. Not long ago Scientific American reported, "In just the past few months researchers have published seemingly contradictory studies showing that excess sodium in the diet leads to heart attacks, reduces your blood pressure or has no effect at all."
And regardless of whether salt is good or bad for you, people like it. When various prepared-food makers, needled by busybodies, have reduced the sodium content of soups, frozen foods, and condiments the changes have been met by—literally—consumer distaste.
Nevertheless, proponents of government meddling are eager to see Washington dictate people's dietary choices because those choices have the potential to affect other people, however indirectly. Government's job used to be (and still properly is) to protect our rights, leaving us free to do as we please up to the point that we violate someone else's rights. But if government can regulate whatever merely affects someone else, then—since anything can be said to affect someone – government can regulate absolutely everything.
To many, this is a feature, not a bug. But those who would like government to dictate more of your personal choices have another reason for doing so as well: They think you're an idiot. As one e-mail correspondent put it recently, "Why shouldn't our leaders, whom we have elected, choose to do what is actually best for us, even if we don't have sense enough to realize it?"
Why not? One reason has already been stated: It is not government's job to decide what is best for us. Second, you cannot give politicians the power to impose good choices alone. When you give politicians the power to impose good choices, you necessarily give them the power to impose bad ones as well. Nobody has proposed banning soccer and other injury-inducing sports, at least not yet. But there are those who think government should have the power to do so if it wanted, and that is bad enough.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.