Looking at his tiny head now, his little eyes all lit up when they see me holding a ‘baba’ of milk for him, it’s not all that hard for me to admit to myself that I don’t want Henry to play football.
Soccer? Sure! Let’s go! I’ll coach, buddy! … and I don’t even know the damn rules.
Baseball? You better believe it! My favorite game! Who wants a new mitt? Who wants to collect baseball cards with his old man?!
Tennis? Fine. Basketball? Absolutely. Golf? Yessir. Swimming? You know it. Dirt track racing? Yeehaw! Competitive bass fishing? Let’s go get ’em!
Eh. I don’t know.
Does that make me sound like a wussy?
I mean, I like football enough. I grew up in a football house and by the time I was eight, I was already a veteran of cold November afternoons, sitting in the whirling frozen winds of Veteran’s Stadium, watching our beloved Philadelphia Eagles with my Pop-Pop. But, now that I’m a dad, I just can’t see football being the game for kids that it once was. Or, at least, for my kids.
For one thing, with each passing year there is more and more scientific proof that the game is still punishing people long after their playing days are over. Last week, one of the greatest linebackers of his time, Junior Seau, became what this article says is the 12th NFL suicide in 25 years. Now, I know, of course, that there is absolutely no proof (yet) that Seau’s tragic end had anything to do with his days as a player.
But, still — there have been a plethora of cases and studies in the past few years that seem to indicate that there is grave concern among former footballers and their families, (not to mention researchers, lawyers, physicians, and lawmakers) that common concussions, once thought to be just another part of the game, are now being linked to serious cases of “chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease that results in Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, including memory loss and mood swings,” according to an article out last week on CNN.com.
More than 1500 former NFL players have joined a lawsuit against the league claiming that the deadly correlation between concussions and more severe brain damage was never made known to them.
“So what?” you ask. “What does any of this have to do with my kid playing football?”
But, now that I’m a dad, I just can’t see football being the game for kids that it once was. Or, at least, for my kids.
Well, to be honest: a whole helluva lot. If full-grown NFL players are beginning to understand the damage that was done to their brains and bodies during their playing days, then who or what is it going to take to come to the honest conclusion that anything rattling those boulder-sized heads around in a bad way is probably going to be just as bad, if not much worse, when it affects a young child’s brain?
According to a PBS Frontline piece that takes a look at head injuries among younger football players, there are at least 60,000 concussions during high school football games each year in the US. What’s worse, the report adds, is that “researchers’ neurological tests are showing that young players who never reported symptoms of a concussion, but had taken sub-concussive hits, have suffered significant damage to their memories. As the season wore on, these players performed increasingly worse on cognitive tests.”
This data is made more alarming when coupled with the fact that a concussion’s effects,”… or even many smaller hits over a season, can be far more detrimental, compared to head injury in an older player,” the PBS report points out.
Think about that for a second. Football is a game where helmets are crashing into each other on every single play. Maybe not every single helmet, every single down, but when all is said and done: Each young player is bound to have received at least a few hard slams to the head in every game. And many players will be getting hit quite a lot.
Don’t jump on the “Better Helmet” bandwagon just yet, either. As much as we’d all like to think that we’re just a technological leap away from a safer sport, there is ample doubt in that department as well. Neuroimaging expert Tom Talavage tells PBS that despite “technology making helmets stiffer, harder, and more protective against skull fracture, players are using them as a ‘tactical weapon’ — and when an athlete uses his helmet to hit and tackle another player, he may be causing damage to his own brain.”
Yesterday, I ran across this excellent piece in the San Francisco Examiner in which the author, Mychael Urban, flat-out says that he will not allow his son to play football, no matter what. I really like his way of thinking. He basically states that no matter how bad his kid wants to play football, the answer will be no.
Based on the facts we know today, there’s absolutely no reason/advantage to exposing a child to the hard perils of the gridiron. Maybe the kid will miss out on something fun. But there will be many other sports or clubs or whatever that can be substituted. And best of all, years from now, the benefits of a football-free youth will likely be massive.
Now, before you wanna nail me in the temple with a thirty-yard spiral, please understand that I’m not trying to attack football. I like the game and I understand that it’s a huge part of our national fabric come September right through February. Yet, like boxing, football seems backed hard into a corner these days. And instead of trying to make things better somehow, there seems to be a big old fat game of “let’s pretend this ain’t happening” going down, people denying that there is danger out there, way more danger than we ever thought possible.
Parents need to make up their own minds. And lots and lots of American parents have big ties to the game, that much is true. But instead of shrugging this problem to the side, it’s time we ask more questions: What about our kids? Should they be allowed to participate in a game that seems to have a long-running streak of neurological disasters increasingly linked to it? Is this a case of “make a better helmet” and everything will be fine?
Or is American football doomed? Are we the last country in the world to hop aboard the ‘soccer’ train … and could that be a good thing in the long run?
You can also find Serge on his personal blog, Thunder Pie.
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