Why I Won’t Encourage My Kids to Play Football

On August 29, 2013, the N.F.L. announced that it had agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by thousands of players and their families. The lawsuit claimed the N.F.L. had actively concealed information about the dangers of repeated hits to the head, which have been discovered to include increased risk for dementia, depression, and degenerative brain disease. More:

The money would be used for medical exams, concussion-related compensation and a program of medical research for retired players and their families. The money, which may not be distributed for many months, will be available to all retired players with neurological problems, not just the plaintiffs. The N.F.L. also agreed to pay legal fees for the plaintiffs’ lawyers, a sum that could reach tens of millions of dollars.

[...]

The settlement will include $675 million for players or the families of players who sustained cognitive injury. As much as $75 million will be set aside for baseline medical exams. A $10 million research fund will be established. Assuming Judge Brody signs off, the deal could take about 180 days for the players to start receiving compensation, Mr. Seeger said.

However, the deal was not without critics who claimed that it didn’t go far enough. After the deal was announced, BuzzFeed’s Erik Malinowski tweeted:

Meanwhile, Alan Schwarz has written a sobering New York Times piece that argues that, while N.F.L. players will now (rightfully) receive some restitution for their injuries, there are many for whom the settlement will do nothing, specifically youth who may just be starting their football career. Schwarz writes:

It is one of the strangest dynamics in sports: the N.F.L., a league for highly compensated adults, effectively sets the policies for children playing for free. The governing bodies for Pop Warner, high school and college football changed most of their rules regarding concussions only after the N.F.L. did so. In some ways, youth football still has to catch up with the professional game. The N.F.L. has eliminated much of the sport’s contact during practices, yet high schools continue unperturbed.

Youth leagues could do far more than they do for the youngest players, with the most vulnerable brains. They could insist on safer tackling and properly conditioned helmets. They could proactively adopt rules that the N.F.L. surely will soon, like drastic changes to kickoffs and new limits on head hits.

But they will more likely continue to wait for approval from above, like any player does for his coach.

In other words, there are many who run an equally high risk as a direct result of playing football, and yet, it still remains to be seen what will be done to protect them and ensure their safety. This reminds me of something Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote at the beginning of the year regarding the “impending death of pro football”:

I don’t know what the adults will do. But you tell a parent that their kid has a five percent chance of developing crippling brain damage through playing a sport, and you will see the end of Pop Warner and probably the end of high school football. Colleges would likely follow.

I confess, I’ve never been a huge football fan, though I had my share of dreams of gridiron glory as a youngster. What’s more, I’ve lived my entire life in Nebraska and here, Cornhusker football is (for all intents and purposes) the state religion. Come late August/early September, it’s impossible, even for this lifelong neophyte, to not get caught up in the pre-season excitement, to not celebrate the victories and lament the defeats, and so on. And whenever there’s a bowl game, I certainly enjoy the pageantry as much as any fan.

But I also confess that as I’ve learned more about this particular dark side of the sport, and the lack of accountability surrounding it, I find it increasingly harder to suppress my concerns about a sport that can so easily ruin people’s lives. (Which is why I appreciated Owen Strachan’s recent Christianity Today piece encouraging Christians to be more thoughtful about the sport, its inherent violence, and the many costs associated with it.)

As I drive home from work, I often pass a football field where young football teams practice. The kids on the field can’t be any older than 10 or 11, and they’re fully geared out in helmets and pads, doing drills and running scrimmages. No doubt, they have fun doing it, and their parents and coaches see it as a positive outlet for their energy, enthusiasm, and aggression. And yet, were my boys—who, admittedly, are still too young for such a league—ever to ask me if they could sign up, I must admit that I’d probably do my best to dissuade them. Not because I hate the players and coaches, or think that football possesses no redeeming qualities whatsoever, or because I want my boys to be “sensitive” types who abhor any type of intense physical activity, but rather, because I hate the thought of what it could so easily do to them were they to suit up.

Obviously, there are many who come to a different decision. Again, I live in Nebraska, and on game day, Memorial Stadium will be transformed into the state’s third biggest city as more than 90,000 people come to pay tribute to the Scarlet and Cream. I have no doubt that many of those folks would think that I’m wussing out; that I simply want to coddle and protect my boys; that football can make my boys tougher, stronger, more disciplined, and so on; or that they’ll miss out on some significant camaraderie and teamwork. I have no doubt that there are some benefits my boys would enjoy were they to suit up, but even so, it’s becoming a harder sell for this skeptical parent with each passing season, each passing controversy, each passing revelation that this game is more destructive than many might think… or care to admit.

Photo via U.S. Army.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • John Turner

    My father (1915-1978) played tackle on his high school football team. He would not let me go out for football in junior high school because he judged, probably correctly, that my bone structure (which came from my mother’s side) was just not up to participating in a collision sport.

    His perspective was not perfect on the subject. He kept lamenting, “They just aren’t teaching players to do cross-body blocks these days.” To which younger veterans of playing invariably responded, “With today’s training regimens for defenders, cross-body blocking would be suicidal for the offensive team.”

    That was in the 1970′s. Today’s training regimens are far more extreme. Hence, football now is several times over a more dangerous sport. Death, brain damage, and lifetime crippling happen much too often.

    Not to mention that moral standards and sportsmanship are far worse. I knew a young man who was a star end for his high school team who says that a player from a cross town rival team was deliberately trying to break his leg at the bottom of a pile.

    It is time for us to face the fact that football as we know it needs to be banned. Basketball is not far behind. I am not sure that new rules would be sufficient to save these sports.

    I understand that some element of risk is inevitable in any athletic competition, but we should have to show that we are taking all reasonable steps to minimize those risks before we should be allowed to continue the sports.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    I came across this article, written by the New York Times’ William C. Rhoden, after I’d already submitted this piece, but I think it’s pretty relevant to the topic at hand.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/16/sports/football/in-nfls-violence-a-moral-quandary-for-fans.html?_r=0

    “Before the agreement, fans could stand shoulder to shoulder with the retired players who were demanding money and disclosure of what the league knew about concussions, and when. The players contended they had been lied to and misled. Those pushing for answers could claim that they held the moral high ground.

    The settlement has left critics of football stranded on a moral island, though I suspect a large number have not lost much sleep over the moral and ethical costs of America’s brutal pastime.”

  • Marty C

    My oldest son is in his senior year and 4th year of High School football. It has been one of the best experiences for him and helped him mature into a responsible young man. The head coach is a Christian and uses the locker room and football field to teach character, responsibility, respect, and leadership. There is risk involved in playing the game as there is with any sport. But this is an experience he’ll cherish for a lifetime. He has two younger brothers and if they choose to play football, I’ll explain the hard work and risks involved. If they still choose to participate I’ll support them 100%.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    Thanks for sharing, and for providing some examples of the benefits that can be found in playing football.

  • Drew Dixon

    How is basketball “not far behind”? It seems a much safer sport than football.

  • John Turner

    Drew,

    I probably should not have made the throw-in line about basketball, but it has been bothering me that apparently intentionally injuring players is becoming a more widespread practice at the NBA level, and that practice spreads to lower levels. Knees injuries, sometimes career-ending and life-affecting injuries, are all too frequent. Brain damage is not unheard of.

    I enjoy football, but love well played basketball. I grieve to recognize that its risks are growing.


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