I just finished reading a book called Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto by Steve Almond. It’s basically about how, as Americans, “we love football so much we’ve become blind to its dangers.” As I sat curled up on my couch reading it, my son was playing Madden on Xbox, and lamenting the fact that his flag football game was cancelled.
The juxtaposition is both ironic and probably, to a certain degree, typical. Because, as I watch my boys grow up loving the sport of football, I find myself struggling with what that means for their physical well-being.
When my oldest son was in first grade and the flyer for flag football came out, I threw it in recycling. At that point my son had never expressed any interest in the game, and I saw no reason to lead him in that direction. However, by the next year he was adamant that he wanted to play, so I signed him up. And, you know what? It was fun, he was good, and I loved seeing him succeed. And, since it was flag football I felt pretty comfortable with the safety aspect of it.
But the next year he wanted to play tackle. That I was less comfortable with. “Maybe next year,” became my standard refrain every year he asked. It was a blatant effort to delay him to the point where he lost interest. To a certain degree it worked. Son #1 is good at football, but he is better at other things. He has a natural musical ability that made it easy for him to find something he loves as much as football.
When son #2 was of age, we didn’t bother waiting until second grade to sign him up for flag. He already knew he wanted to play as soon as he was eligible, having played football with his older brother from the time he could hold a ball and run. Much to both my joy and dismay, son #2 was a natural football player the way son #1 was a natural musician. Even at 6 years old, he had an instinct for the game. He was not only fast, but had the inherent skill of “juking” other players – immediately able to switch the trajectory of his run, or stop on a dime and take off in the opposite direction, getting up to full speed almost instantly. And as much as I loved, and continue to love watching him score touchdown after touchdown, I can’t help but be a little afraid of what the future holds for him…and me. Because, he already knows he wants to play tackle football. And I already know he would be really, really good at it. But I’m afraid of the ramifications for both us if I let him play. And if I don’t.
If it were 10 or 15 years ago, I might not think twice about letting my sons play tackle football, it being a coming-of-age ritual for many young American males. But it’s not 10 or 15 years ago. It’s 2014, and the science coming out about the most loved sport in America is more than a little bit scary. There has been a lot in the news lately about the connection between tackle football and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head. It was largely brought to light in the book, League of Denial, published in 2013, and the PBS documentary of the same name, about how the NFL, over a period of nearly two decades, sought to cover up and deny mounting evidence of the connection between football and brain damage.
So what does brain damage in an NFL player have to do with my now eight-year-old kid playing tackle football? According to most people that I’ve talked to about tackle football, including parents, coaches, my child’s pediatrician and my chiropractor, tackle football is “safest” to play at this age because kids “don’t hit that hard yet.” Which may be true. But what if it’s not? If the science has just started revealing the brain trauma in not only professional players, but also college players, and at this point, at least one high school player, how do we really know it’s “safe” for children? And, for the sake of argument, let’s just say it is safe right now. If I let my son play tackle football now when it’s “safe” and he loves it and does well, what do I do when he wants to continue playing when he’s older, when kids hit harder, when it’s not “safe”?
Then there’s the issue of size. Both my sons are both on the small side and given genetics, will likely always be. Regardless of whatever their inherent talent for the sport is the likelihood that it will pan out to be anything more than potentially some high school glory, if even that, is exceedingly slim. Yet, I have always maintained that as a parent my role should not be to tell them what their limitations are, but to let them try, and succeed or fail on their own. That would all be well and good, and honestly make my decision really easy…if it weren’t for that pesky science.
Dr. Ann McKee is the director of neuropathology at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Bedford, Mass, and one of the leading experts on CTE. In the documentary League of Denial, she was asked, “If you had children who were 8 and 10 and 12, would they play football?”
Her response? “Eight, 10, 12? No, they would not…because the way football is being played currently, that I’ve seen, it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous, and it could impact their long-term mental health. You only get one brain. The thing you want your kids to do most of all is succeed in life and be everything they can be. And if there’s anything that may infringe on that, that may limit that, I don’t want my kids doing it.”
Given this quote, you would think that my decision should be an easy one. But it’s not, because no matter what the science says, they still love the game. And that love is complicated. Part of it almost seems like a base instinct that boys have to weave athleticism and aggression together. Part of it is also tied to their love of their father, a life-long Giants fan. From the age of 12 until he was 26, my husband sat in section 123, row three, of Giant’s Stadium, watching “his” team with his dad. Like most males of a certain age, it’s how he connected with his father. Football was the common language that they spoke. My husband still loves the game, and no doubt, when he watches, still feels a connection to the memory of his father. And he shares that love, that language, those memories with our sons. But even with his own complicated relationship to the sport, my husband also has reservations about letting our sons play tackle. Probably even more than I do.
So what’s a mother to do? What’s she to do when her kid may be potentially very good at something that may be very bad for him?
Right now I continue my procrastination technique, telling my boys that they can play tackle “maybe in high school.” I bide my time hoping flag football and casual games with their friends will satisfy them, while I try to help them find another passion. I have made them both watch the documentary League of Denial. And I will make them watch it again and again, until they really and truly get it. I want them to understand what is happening to their favorite players every time they get hit. More so, I want them to them to understand the potential danger to themselves. My hope is that, as they get older, the realities of the game will set in, and they will opt out of playing tackle football on their own, thus saving me from having to be hated for taking something they love away from them. But I also understand that reality is no match for the invulnerability and immortality of youth. So I may have to step in, and make hard, unpopular choices that do make them hate me. Because that’s my job. I just hope one day, down the road, when they are parents facing their own hated choices, they realize that while you have to be tough to be a football player, you have to be tougher to be a parent.
This is an original post for JerseyMomsBlog by Christina Surretsky.