Last month one of my childhood idols; a two-sport phenom came out with his stance when it comes to CTE injuries and football. CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy and is caused by head trauma and in the case of football players; concussions. Mental impairments and sometimes death have been shown to be possible side effects of CTE. This subject has brought up quite a bit of interesting and sometimes heated conversation on the internet, sports radio and in the homes of sporting families all over. But’s it’s a good conversation and one worth having and as a dad to a son I think it’s worth talking about here since in a few years my own son will be at the age where sports may become a thing for him.
Now, many will say that professional American football players in the NFL know the potential health risks of playing football at the pro level and some would say the same for college athletes. That is disingenuous to a large degree though since many athletes, were not aware of the long-term dangers when came to concussions. Until recently; no one really was. Sure these pro athletes (as well as prep athletes) accept the potential risk of things like broken bones, torn ACL’s, knee issues, etc, etc. Most, however, never considered having serious brain injuries where the effects might not show up until years or even decades after their playing days were over.
In January, Bo Jackson the two-sport phenom I spoke of before said in an interview with USA Today Sports, “If I knew back then what I know now, I would have never played football. Never. I wish I had known about all of those head injuries, but no one knew that. And the people that did know that, they wouldn’t tell anybody.” He isn’t the only former football player or athlete to come out against the NFL with how it handles CTE and he isn’t the only one who has at least questioned whether or not they would have played if they had better information.
When talking about his kids he goes on to say, “there’s no way I would ever allow my kids to play football”. Coming from Bo Jackson that blunt talk really means something. It’s worth stating that it wasn’t a concussion that ended his playing career but rather a hip injury during the 1990 season. I think it’s great that he came out and said what he did. He knows where he stands in the eyes of many people who idolized him back in the day and maybe they will listen. If not for them but for their kids.
Kids and Football
I have a lot of friends who have kids who play football. I played football for a few years. By the time I decided to stop playing football at the beginning of my Sophomore year in High School I had a messed up knee, bad ankle, and one concussion. I played back at a time (the mid 90’s) when concussions weren’t a real concern in prep sports. It was a time when the sport was more aggressive then is now, the coaches more barbaric, the equipment wasn’t much better than it was in the 80’s ( and often used) and “walk it off” was the go-to answer for most on-field injuries. Because of the physical nature of the game and knowing what I know now I don’t regret walking away from it. Now, in addition to football I also wrestled, was on a ski team and played baseball way back when I was much younger. Rollerblading was a big thing in the late 1990’s and I won’t lie I received two concussions from doing that since it was something I was pretty into.
Now, you hear all the cheerleading from proponents of youth and prep football talking about all the positive things the sport does for kids. They talk about things like teamwork and discipline, leadership, physical health, humility, social skills, friendships for a lifetime and competitiveness etc. etc. Yes, football does or can provide many of those things in varying ways but not for every individual player. Don’t get me started though on the ridiculousness of what it supposedly does for communities. If a town is expecting a group teenagers to carry its reputation and civic pride on their shoulders because of a game then that is tantamount to emotional abuse.
All those things mentioned though can be learned in other sports; almost every single one. Football does not own the exclusive rights to these learned qualities. These things can be learned in literally any other team sport and many of them in solo sports like tennis, golf or skiing. So let’s stop kidding ourselves and acting like football is the skeleton key to a brighter better future as a well-rounded adult.
Leaving college and pros aside for a moment we still don’t know the realistic long term damage of CTE injuries in young kids but we know damage is happening and is possible. Sadly, CTE as of now can only be diagnosed post-mortem. Do we have to wait until some 12 year old dies from concussion-related symptoms? For some parents, that’s what it will take it seems before they accept change in the sport and in themselves. If a child starts playing tackle football when they are, let’s say in 3rd grade and they keep playing through high school and never play again after that. They still are incurring ELEVEN years of their tiny little gray brains bouncing around which aren’t even formed all the way yet. Just for comparison, the average length of an NFL players career is “about six years” according to the NFL (unless they make a Pro-bowl). So you’re talking about playing football almost two times longer than a grown adult with a fully formed brain does.
Yes, I understand a 10-year-old doesn’t hit as hard as 25-year-old NFL player.
But isn’t a hit still a hit?
With all these being equal isn’t a hard head hit from one 10-year old on another near equally sized 10-year-old just as potentially damaging as two 300Lbs 25-year-old NFL players hitting each other? Scientists and doctors (for those of you who believe in science) are starting to give warnings now about kids and CTE. In a study by Boston University Researchers, they came to the conclusion that, “there’s increasing evidence that children respond differently to head trauma than adults. Kids who are hitting their heads over and over during this important time of brain development may have consequences later in life,” (Moran).
In the same article by Barbara Moran, Robert Stearn MED who is the director of BU’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the study’s senior author said, “The findings support the idea that it may not make sense to allow children—at a time when their brain is rapidly developing—to be exposed to repetitive hits to the head. If larger studies confirm this one, we may need to consider safety changes in youth sports.” In this study, they were talking about kids 12 and under and did also mention the “supposed” benefits that I talked about earlier.
Studies are still being done about CTE by many researchers but it’s not looking good. The early provable evidence doesn’t look good. When throwing in high school players it even becomes more worrisome.
So now you might be wondering where do I stand as a dad to a boy who is likely going to be a big boy in some way just like I was. “Will you let him play football?” you might be wondering.
Truthfully I don’t know.
I won’t encourage it; I do know that much. And as of right now I’d rather him not use his brain and body as someone else’s battering ram but rather for something intelligent, creative and important.
But I’ll support him in anything he does or any sport he wants to try and play because that’s what you do as a parent right? I never wanted and refuse to be one of those dads who force or coerce their sons into sports or a particular sport so they can relive their supposed glory days from high school through them. I. Don’t. Wanna. Be. That. Guy. I know the BS and can see through it. I do like sports and I think there are numerous prep sports that can offer my son the same personal growth as football does but without the serious physical consequences like CTE and TBI’s. In one conversation I had about this subject with another dad who was very pro football he said I was going to raise a wuss if I didn’t “make” him (my son) play football. I think that is a little dramatic and replied, “No, I just care more about my son’s health and life after high school and college I guess. His future is more important than a game.”
There are also other things that don’t involve sports at all where my son can receive many of those same personal growth opportunities and life skills while doing them. I started working in the middle of my freshmen year of high school as a bagger at a grocery store and moved up from there. I didn’t do it because I had to but because I wanted too. I worked all the way through Highschool and between my time at school, work, doing some sports and being involved in other social activities I learned everything a football player would have and then some. To be fair I probably did retain some things I learned while playing football. However, I actually left high school with a diploma AND some marketable skills because of the 3 ½ years I spent in the workforce. This was something which 95% of the people I went to school with or other people my age who I knew didn’t have.
I’m not going to force my son to play sports in junior high or high school. I will let him decide when he is ready and if he is ready. However, when it comes to football I just don’t think I’ll get behind it unless he really wants to give it a try. And before I let him I will make sure he is aware of all the health risks. The early science and evidence on CTE’s as well as TBI’s (traumatic brain injuries) though make me not willing to gamble my son’s mental and physical health and future on a game and for a sport that I only care marginally about. I never lived and breathed football because I knew back then just as I know now that there is more to life than high school football and sports. After graduation day all of those “experiences” are mostly meaningless and forgotten in few years.
I know a lot of dads (and mom’s) who let their son’s play football. I knew a lot of the typical “football dads” back in the day, I saw how they acted at games and I see how they act now. I don’t want my son’s personal self-worth being determined by his willingness or ability to play a game like those dads and their sons did back then or do now. Many football dads are some version of Tim McGraw’s character in the movie Friday Nights Lights whether they realize it or not or admit it or not. Some of these dads might say, “well I played and I am fine.” I would reply with, “Are you fine or are you just assuming you’re fine? Do you know for a certainty what you would have been like if you hadn’t played football?”
I don’t want Jax thinking that his future success is solely dependent on his sporting abilities or just limited to that.
I don’t want Jax thinking that my love for him is dependent upon putting a pair of shoulder pads or cleats on.
I’ll love my son no matter what he does, that’s the real job of a parent. He doesn’t need to repeat what I did to receive that or my respect. At 38 years old with 4 concussions (2 serious ones), bad knees, mangled ankles, numerous foot injuries and a bad shoulder why the hell would I want that for him when I don’t even want it for me?
Trust me, the nearly 23-year-old memories are not worth it.
Check out this interview with Jeffrey Barth, Ph.D. He is a professor and co-director, Neurocognitive Assessment Laboratory; section head, Neurocognitive Studies in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, with a joint appointment in the Department of Neurological Surgery, University of Virginia School of Medicine.