The concussion issue is another reason in a long line of reasons why parents are reconsidering football as a sport for their children. The football debate is a very old one. Many schools did not want their students playing football in the early part of the 20th Century. Today, there are bigger stronger athletes in most every sport with blazing fast speed that have an added dimension of danger to most sports. I am not sure if there is a way to resolve that issue.
Such debates about sports participation seem to be focused on football today, but can easily expand to many other sports. I think it is important to understand that the questions concerning the desirability of football as a sport for young people is perhaps more complicated than people may be led to believe.
The World is a Dangerous Place
I know as a boy I had several occasions where I was technically knocked out. If you have ever slammed your head on the street or sidewalk when falling off a bike, you know that it does not take a contact sport to create serious head injury risk. In addition to two bike incidents requiring stitches and lots of ice to the head, I was also hit by a metal pipe once and a rather large rock on another occasion--both incidents had me seeing stars and getting stitches. When I joined up for intramural boxing at my high school and ended up fighting a much more experienced fighter in my first fight, I saw more stars, and hours of foggy consciousness followed. The worst head injury I experienced however, was when I slipped on ice on the way to church one day and fell right on the back of my head on the cement sidewalk. There was a kind of static in my vision for many hours and I was not right for days. Needless to say, the thought never occurred to me or my parents to stop going to church in the winter.
Football Play and Beyond
When I played grade school football, I was a defensive lineman and on one play while an offensive lineman was fighting me off, a halfback came low and smashed into my jaw with his helmet to injure me. I shook it off and then got so low no one could attempt the move thereafter. In college during a PE touch football contest I took a forearm to the throat from a kid who did not know how to block. In a Little League game when I went to tag a runner coming towards my base, he did the same thing--threw a forearm to the throat. The throat injuries were the most frightening--the inability to breathe brings intense anxiety.
Parents fall back on their own experiences and have lots of things to consider when thinking about sports participation for their kids. If you are a parent who loves sports and your son is 300 pounds, you may not be too worried about his risk from the players around him, although I suspect it is there. On the other hand, if he is a big guy, he probably is not going to make the track team, cross country, tennis, and several other no-contact sports. In other words, there may not be a lot of choices. If he doesn't get involved in sports, he could end up an obese coach potato. So you are more likely weighing football versus nothing as opposed to football versus other sports. If your son is 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, you are probably thinking a little harder about whether you'd like to see him out there on the football field. He may have some choices and perhaps you think he is a little small for the grid iron. Still, there are many very good high school football players who are roughly 165 pounds and 5-foot-10.
I have one son and several daughters. My son played soccer and basketball when he was very young, but as he got older he got into weightlifting, running, and things like rock climbing, biking, and yes, the sport that in my opinion is likely to keep plenty of doctors busy when his generation gets old, skateboarding. I am lucky in that he has kept himself in spectacular shape his entire life.
I had daughters first and when they were growing up, there was not a long history of widespread sports play for women in schools. I don't remember any of my sisters even considering a sport in high school, so I knew the girls would need some direction at the time. I had no specific notions for sports other than the fact that I wanted them to get plenty of cardiovascular exercise. The girls were involved in music so I thought it unlikely that they could play several sports--I was looking for one that would really help keep them fit. I like and knew baseball, but I find it wanting in terms of real fitness from play if it was the only sport being played. Of course, baseball players do many things other than play baseball to stay fit. They run laps, do calisthenics, and some lift weights. But I was looking for something that could do it all for my girls while they were actually playing the sport.
I chose soccer for my girls because it was a sure fire way for them to get plenty of exercise. It was not an easy choice for me because I knew little about it, I was not a fan at the time, and involvement was expensive, especially when I had four kids in it at the same time. However, the kids always got a great workout from it. I came to know the game as they learned to play.I started them out when they were about 8 years old and almost all them played into high school. My youngest daughter runs cross country and track, so she keeps in fantastic shape so I have no worries about her.
But there were worries out on the soccer field. When my oldest girl was the fastest kid on the soccer field in high school, the opposition played dirty--they attacked her knees. As your kid gets older, soccer becomes a year-round sport regardless of the climate. In places like Illinois, kids play indoors in the winter at facilities that are usually much smaller than outdoor fields. The smaller field makes it easier for kids to attack a strong player. At one indoor game, my daughter was given a head butt that knocked her out. Another kid on her team injured her eye in the same game.
If you are a soccer parent, you may have noticed that indoor soccer is more like hockey in its emotional intensity. For some reason, the smaller field brings on a more intense play and a more aggressive attitude. I've seen several injuries in girls indoor soccer caused by unruly play. In the outdoor games that I viewed, most injuries that my kids experienced were strains or sprains. Just as girls soccer begins to get more interesting because of the higher skill level of the kids, much more rough play creeps in and the game can become a bad imitation of men's soccer.
More Dangerous than Football?
I don't know about your experience, but I do remember as a kid hearing about kids who got killed playing baseball--yes killed. They were hit in the head by pitches. Baseball can be a dangerous game when kids are up against a pitcher who can throw a very fast ball. Kids also slide into players, collide with others on the base path. I never heard of a kid in my old neighborhood being killed playing football. Obviously, life threatening injuries do occur in football, but there are other sports with very big risks. Parents can see the risks as their kids get older and advance in any sport. In some cases they can draw their kids into safer sports if that's what they want to do. But sometimes that's going to be difficult.
In the end, a parent makes the call about which sport you allow your kids to play, but knowing what I know about kids, you may have a tough time taking your kid out of a sport. In other words, if he has played football during grade school and you are afraid the risks are too great in high school, it may be a painful and difficult separation especially if he is any good.
Long for Football
For a new book we are working on, Sports and Faith Book Two, we have a segment on Howie Long. Long, the great defensive end of the Raiders, had a difficult childhood. Although he was a handsome, intelligent, gifted athlete--he had low self esteem. Long faced a grim future in his neighborhood in Boston where most of the men were struggling to just keep their jobs. As a teenager, he was ditching school. He was living with his grandmother after his parents had divorced.
A family counsel took place and it was decided that Long would move outside the city with an aunt and uncle. The head football coach there asked the big boy to come out for the team. Long joined. Football gave Long a group to which he could belong and one that respected its members. Football required commitment, discipline, sacrifice, obedience to authority, dedication, and more. And because football is a very intense sport, players have a tendency to feel viscerally about it. For Long, football helped him sort through his life. He learned and applied its lessons. Sure there were risks and many injuries during Long's career, but for him, playing football provided an opportunity to succeed at something important.
Kids can be energetic and aggressive. They may need a more intense challenging sport to maintain their interest. Many desperately need a game to focus their energies on. Football is that kind of game for many kids. Howie Long's three sons have all played football, two of them in the NFL.
If parents do decide against football, what are the tradeoffs? Will their kids get the same team building experience? Will they feel the same camaraderie? Will they have the intense commitment? Will they be motivated to work as hard? Will they be able to exhaust their own energies and work out their frustrations? Will they feel the same satisfaction? Will they face the same challenges and experience the same accomplishment? Is it a case of the greater the risk, the greater the potential reward? Are the other sports less risky?
Other Benefits of Football
Over ten thousand top college scholarships for football are provided each year. Many athletes obtain not just a fine education, but one they could never have afforded. Professional athletes are routinely paid in the millions for their efforts. Most NFL teams are paying over $100,000,000 a year in player salaries. Additionally, at least two-thirds of NFL players are minorities. The NFL has become a minority millionaire machine. Football front offices, coaches, and even ownership are becoming more diverse to say nothing about sports personalities covering the game.
When we think about taking our support away from football, there is much at risk all the way around. It has become quite an institution. But no doubt for parents, it is their decision about their children and not an easy one.
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