In recent years, the question of whether tackle football is safe for kids and adolescents to play has become a hot debate for parents. As evidence mounts demonstrating that the very elements that make football what it is are potentially catastrophic to developing young brains, more American parents are taking the still-unpopular position that their own sons will not play this most American of American sports.
I am now one of those parents.
My 7th grade son, E is an athlete, through and through. He’s physically gifted, and he has excelled at every sport he’s played. E is active in competitive lacrosse, basketball, soccer, and for the past two years, middle school tackle football.
I’ve written before of my ambivalence around the issue of whether E should play football, but until recently, I just didn’t feel that the medical evidence was clear enough to deny my boy the chance to participate in a sport in which he seemed interested. So E played football in 2009 and 2010. During those two seasons, I tried to educate myself about the pros and cons of his football participation. I attempted to evaluate the evidence without any bias in one direction or the other. I watched him play without commenting on how many times my child got whacked in the head during regular practices, and with even greater frequency during games.
As I observed and pondered, I also kept reading the growing body of emerging literature on the risks of football for kids and teens, all the while trying to remain openminded. I read what legendary NFL players like Troy Aikman are saying about why today’s game has grown unacceptably dangerous, and also about whether their own sons will play football.
Ultimately, I realized that I can no longer in good conscience ignore the science demonstrating the dangers football poses to developing brains, nor could I any longer ignore my own common sense. At a certain point, I realized I’d made my decision – no football. Following this decision, I sat down just a few days ago with my very athletic, very competitive 13 year-old son E, and I explained to him that he willl not play competitive, team football until my legal consent is no longer required.
My son E is distinctly displeased with my decision.
However, after educating myself, this is one debate where I am comfortable taking a stand. The evidence is clear, compelling, and becoming harder to ignore: youth and teen football players are at unacceptably high risk for subtle yet potentially life altering brain damage. And I’d much rather deal with a 13 year-old who is majorly annoyed with me now than watch my son become a 30 year old former high school football star who lives with learning deficits and depression.
How about you? Where do you come down on this surprisingly emotional issue, and why? Would you let your sons play football? Why or why not? Have your views evolved over time? Talk about whether kids should play football in the comments below.
UPDATE: After writing my original blog post, a commenter sent me information on an organization called The Sports Legacy Institute. This non-profit is raising public awareness and research funding related to the danger of brain injury inherent in sports which guarantee repeated incidents of head trauma. Here’s a very clear explanation of what this type of repeated banging on the head does to people’s brains. The damage often doesn’t manifest as actual symptoms until up to a decade after the last game played, but forensic researchers have now found physical evidence of this condition in the brains of football players as young as 18 years old.
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