Memoirs, Sports-Hobbies.

Would you let your child play football?

Growing up, football and basketball were my favorite sports. I played plenty of tackle and touch football, on teams and with friends and family. Yet later as parents, when our boys played high school sports, my wife and I did not allow them to play tackle football:  We felt that with the amount and severity of injuries in football, the risk was too high. Given the recent revelations of long-term injuries in football, the question can be asked anew:  Would we have let our children play football today, or more urgently, would we want our grandchildren to play football today?

I played high school football, in a manner of speaking. My friends and I often played tackle football without pads on the weekends, usually on muddy fields, which served to reduce the force of the tackles. As a junior at Jackson High School in Portland, at 5 foot 2 inches tall and weighing in at 115 pounds, I lingered at the third position on the varsity football depth chart as a cornerback, and played only near the end of lopsided games, simply too small to be taken seriously.

As a benchwarmer on my high school varsity team, I had some sense that I was simply too small to hit hard enough, and that my coaches felt some paternalistic protectiveness and were afraid I would disintegrate if hit hard by the big boys on the field. Certainly some of my teammates watched out for me:  I did play in a lot of the practice scrimmages on defense, and in one telling incident, intercepted a long overthrown pass against the first string offense, returned the ball up the middle of the field, and ended up on the bottom of a pile of offensive linemen. I was unhurt and unfazed, doing what all small runners do, which was to duck under the tackles at the last moment to avoid full-on hits. However, some of my teammates ran in to check to see if I survived what looked like to them disaster, and even in the showers after the practice players were still approaching me to see if I was OK after what they perceived as the big hits.

It was my own experience with high school football that convinced me that football was not healthy for my sons, but not due to any of my own, thankfully minor injuries. What I noticed was the rate and severity of injuries. My closest friends suffered bad injuries on the field: One broke his back while playing running back, another tore his ACL while playing linebacker, twice, all season-ending injuries. I witnessed a dislocated shoulder, a dislocated wrist, many knee injuries (we only used long cleats in the late-60’s), multiple broken arms, fingers, collarbones and one broken leg, and many who got their “bell wrung,” that is, suffered obvious concussions. Every game had more than one injury that required a player to leave the game and not return. I noticed that the types and rates of injuries in basketball and baseball, the other major high school sports of my time, were significantly lower in severity and occurrence,  and unlike football, it was much more rare to see players having to leave the game, or to stop playing for the rest of the season due to injuries.

My wife and I let our children play organized football when they were growing up, but the international version, aka soccer, not the U.S. version, which remains football. Our older son was particularly unhappy about this, as many of his friends played, and he had the makings of a good wide receiver.  With recent revelations about life-long injurious head injuries from football, he is now glad we shunted him away from high school football. 

League of Denial, by Mark Fainaru-Wada

The relatively new understanding that concussive injuries from football can cause life-long brain-damage, and can seriously shorten and distort the lives of those whose brains have been damaged in such fashion is a game changer. The new book League of Denial, which addresses these problems primarily at the NFL level, points out that everyone ". . . knew that football was violent and dangerous, that one hit could break your neck or even kill you. No, what the researchers were saying was that the essence of football -- the unavoidable head banging that occurs on every play, like a woodpecker jackhammering at a tree -- can unleash a cascading series of neurological events that in the end strangles your brain, leaving you unrecognizable.' 'The devastating symptoms produced by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, a neuro-degenerative disease that had been detected in the brains of many deceased football players: depression, dementia, even suicide. "(League of Denial, Mark Fainaru-Wada, p. 17)  

These symptoms are the same as found with pugilistic dementia, and similar to Alzheimer’s disease. As with those diseases, the current best way to show this permanent brain damage is to autopsy the brain, which is to say, methods to measure this kind of damage in living people is still in its infancy. The advanced behavior of those suffering from these diseases is detectable, but usually long after the damage has been done.

More and more evidence is accumulating (discussions here and here) that suggests that even mild, almost externally unrecognizable shocks to the brain resulting from violent contact, particularly if it happens repeatedly, can cause early and permanent damage, in elementary and in high school children, and can be cumulative. In other words, violent contact in Pee Wee football, Pop Warner and high school football can cause irreversible brain damage that can distort and shorten the lives of your children.

One would expect that, if indeed researchers are on the wrong track, that some of the evidence would point away from a correlation of repeated violent hits and CTE, but currently all of the accumulating evidence is pointing towards this conclusion. Even so, it is currently difficult to say with certainty that children are at this level of risk, leaving room for parents, schools, coaches and the children themselves room to deny that this is a real risk and to continue with full-contact football for children and adolescents.

It seems much more prudent, indeed in the best interests of the children, for parents to remove them from the sport of football until it is proven to be safe, not wait until it is proven to be life-shortening to finally act. As a new grandparent, I do not want my grandchildren to play football, either, as not only is it the most violent of our major sports, but it is proving to be one that can produce irreversible brain damage; the more hits, not even directly to the head, the more chance that irreversible CTE damage can accumulate, to show up later during adulthood. Some prominent former NFL players, including the recently retired quarterback great Brett Favre, who is already showing symptoms of CTE, are suggesting that they won’t allow their children to play football.

There are many other sports that children can participate in that carry much less risk to long-term brain health, or to long-term health in general.

As a life-long fan of football (I have found that if one participates in a sport, there is much more interest in watching that sport as a fan: One can admire the mastery of a sport by athletes that can do what one cannot so easily do, or easily repeat), I largely ignored the worst aspects of playing the sport over a long period of time. As the concussion issues became more public over the last ten years of so, though, I was not surprised, and more than a little ashamed at ignoring what I should have been more aware of. I am still struggling with whether I should be watching football anymore, but have yet to completely give it up.

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