I looked across at my opponent as I pushed him towards the sideline, and that is when I sensed a shift in momentum. I glanced over my shoulder and realized that the quarterback, my quarterback, had thrown an interception. As I ran down the sideline to tackle the defensive player holding the ball, advice and mantras from various coaches shot through my mind.
Hit him. Kill him. Hit him so hard he doesn’t get up. Hit him so hard he can’t hold onto the football.
And then the collision happened. The defensive player, who was about my size, didn’t lose the ball. I didn’t run over him and he didn’t run over me. We both collided and we both kind of fell to the side. He hopped up to cheers as he ran off the field after creating a turnover for his team. I hopped up too, but not nearly as quickly as he did.
After I recovered from the blinding white flash that struck me when the collision first occurred, I quickly realized that the vision in my right eye was gone — as in, I couldn’t see anything if I put my hand over my left eye.
As I walked back to my team’s sideline, I joked with my friend that I couldn’t see out of my right eye. We both thought it was hilarious and a few minutes later we both headed to the locker room for halftime. At some point in the third quarter of that game the vision in my right eye returned, but the headache didn’t go away for several hours.
Thinking back on it now, I should have been scared, but instead the culture of football had taught me to laugh at pain and laugh at the consequences that come from that pain. It was a culture. A football culture that I had been taught from the fifth grade on.
I experienced other injuries throughout my decade or more of playing football. I lived with a broken wrist for a year during my senior season, and now I have a screw holding my wrist together to prove it. I also partially herniated a disk in my lower back at some point in little league football that now won’t allow me to sleep without a body pillow or fall asleep for more than 7 hours at a time without causing some serious pain. But all of these injuries were worth the cost of playing football.
Despite my acceptance of the injuries that I suffered while playing my favorite sport, nobody really understood at the time what a concussion was and what to do if one even happened. In fact, I never heard the word concussion throughout my entire time playing football. Even after losing the vision in my right eye, it never occurred to me that I should report it to a coach. Coaches were worried about spinal injuries and leg injuries, but they weren’t concerned about headaches and concussions.
Patrick Hruby, of Sports on Earth, recently interviewed Monet Bartell, a mother of a 4-year-old whom she enrolled to play football. Monet grew up in that same football culture that I grew up in; only her football culture was supercharged. Her father played in the NFL, as did her uncle and her brothers and several cousins. When it came time to enroll her 4 year-old son in football, the boy’s father wanted his son to play chess, but mom overruled dad and their son was soon wearing pads and hitting other kids.
The interesting thing about Monet is that she watched as her family struggled with the effects of brain injuries that were a direct result of football. She had a relative who struggled mightily from the effects of brain injuries he sustained. This relative struggled through family problems, mental health issues, weight loss, and erratic behavior. Monet also read about the studies that were released by the NFL in the mid-1990s that were later discredited by scientists. Studies that the NFL used to justify allowing players who suffered concussion to return to games after a player suffered a concussion, and she was infuriated with the NFL after reading the studies.
Yet, Monet still let her 4 year-old son play football; and not just play football, she encourages him to hit the other kids hard and to excel at the sport. Should we expect anything else? It’s in her culture. It’s what she knows.
Recent studies have indicated that pop-warner and little league turnout has decreased 9% and 11% respectively over the last two years now that doctors have a better grasp on how brain injuries affect people. More specifically, how concussions in football can damage the brain. One note of interest was that concussions can alter a person’s personality and change who that person would have become without the concussion.
That’s scary stuff.
Even knowing what I know now and having experienced football myself, I would still allow my kids to play football if they wanted to play football.
That’s scary stuff too.
However, I would only let them play football if two conditions are met. First, the culture of the game needs to change slightly. More education needs to be given to the little league coaches, referees, parents, and players about concussions and the effects of those concussions. Players and coaches need to be able to recognize when a kid has suffered a concussion so it can be treated. Parents need to understand what the effects are of multiple concussions so they can make the decision of when enough is enough. And this training about how to handle concussions needs to happen yearly and it needs to be mandatory. Also, the habit of encouraging kids to hit other kids as hard as possible needs to go. It’s unnecessary. A tackle is a tackle; there isn’t a need to punish the other player and potentially cause a concussion to either player.
Second, tackling technique needs to be a major focus of the league. My little league coach drilled into us the understanding of bending our knees, squaring our shoulders, and keeping our face masks up. His reasoning for teaching quality tackling technique was to avoid neck injuries caused by spearing (hitting with the crown of the helmet), but that same technique can be used to help prevent concussions, and even more technique can be taught to help prevent concussions as well. The behavior that causes many of the concussions is unnecessary, but this education has to start at the little league level and those kids need to advance from level to level with that same changed behavior until none of the bad behavior exists anymore.
The question of whether we will allow our children to play football doesn’t have to be the end of America’s greatest game.
Football can be played safely.
Photo Credit: Flickr
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