Disclosure: I am not a parent. But it’s easy to understand and sympathize with the dilemma faced by mothers and fathers of strapping boys who are avid to play football on their junior high, high school or college teams.
These days the professional football player is at the apex of the sports hero hierarchy, and the acclaim and rewards begin very early. For big, fast, athletic boys in towns all across America the allure of football and the pressure to play are enormous.
So how do conscientious parents sort through the predictable conclusion that too many blows to the head can result in long-term, life-destroying deficits and that the damage often starts long before players reach the National Football League?
And how do they balance their obligation to protect their children against the value that sports — even football — might bring to their lives?
Like me, President Obama has no sons, but he commented on this dilemma recently in a much-discussed New Yorker article, saying, “I would not let my son play pro football.”
But this isn’t the choice that parents face. The tiny minority of players that reach the top will make that decision for themselves. But they need permission to start somewhere, and that responsibility falls heavily on their parents.
Some parents appear to be listening to the evidence. In January a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reported that 40 percent of 800 Americans polled said that they would encourage their children to pursue sports other than football because of concerns about concussions. This may explain why Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, experienced a participation drop of nearly 10 percent between 2010 and 2012.
Still, parents have a lot going against them when they try to discern and then do the right thing. Other seemingly safer sports have their own problems. In a story titled “Brain Trauma Extends to the Soccer Field,” the New York Times reported last week on soccer player Patrick Grange, who after his death at age 29 was diagnosed with significant chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the condition associated with repeated blows to the head.
So, concussion-deniers are quick to assert, concussions can occur in all sports, including field hockey and cheerleading. Furthermore, more players are probably killed or injured in automobile accidents on their way to practice than are killed or injured on the field. There’s no such thing as a risk-free life.
Yes, probably. But this line of thinking sounds like a rationalization in service of a conclusion that we passionately hope to be true, that we can continue to enjoy the exciting game of football without acknowledging all the physical damage that it does to its players.
This is probably an acknowledgement too far for us to reach as a nation.
Rules changes and practice modifications are unlikely to do much to diminish the collateral damage from an extremely rough sport, the kind of long-term effects that even the best players are unable to escape. Only parents can save boys from that.
The football hero of my university days was Earl Campbell, a tough running back who won the Heisman Trophy at the University of Texas, starred in the NFL and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991.
Campbell, a first-class human being, had a dream football career. Now, unfortunately, he can barely walk. He suffers chronic pain from the battering he endured during high school, college and nine years in the NFL. He gets around with a walker and, sometimes, a wheelchair. He’s 58.
Of course, Campbell might say that his physical ills are balanced sufficiently by the fame, money and glory of his spectacular career. And who’s to say they’re not?
But your son, tossing the pigskin around in the backyard, can’t imagine ever being 58, much less using a wheelchair. He already thinks he’s Earl Campbell or, more likely, Peyton Manning. You’re probably the only one who can help him see what’s at stake.