Why My Son Will Never Play Football

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My 17-year-old son has always been a sports-first kind of boy. We have a Polaroid of him holding a basketball before he could crawl. He took his first steps on Superbowl Sunday – because he was trying to get as close as possible to the TV screen. Poker is a sport in his view, because ESPN broadcasts it. Ask him any sports trivia question and you will get an answer within a half second. Sports rule his life.

Which is why I never let him play football.

He is a high school soccer goalie. A starting point and shooting guard in basketball. A fine tennis player. Bruises often cover his body from the “contact” (with the ball, the court, the racquet, and the other players) that is a big part of most sports, even allegedly non-contact ones.

But football? Not a chance.

Turns out I am in pretty good company. Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James recently disclosed that he has forbidden his sons, ages 7 and 10, to play tackle football. Despite the fact that James considers football his first love and remains a huge college and NFL football fan.

“It’s a safety thing,” he explained to ESPN. “As a parent you protect your kids as much as possible. I don’t think I’m the only one that’s not allowing his kids to play football, it’s just that I’m LeBron James and it gets put in the headlines for no reason.”

President Obama, who generates a lot of headlines himself, has also expressed grave concerns about letting children play.

“If I had a son,” President Obama told 60 Minutes, “I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”

Medical experts are reaching consensus about how lethal football concussions can be. The New York Times magazine recently ran a cover story titled “Is Football the Next Tobacco?” about the cover up of the dangers of the game. Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, has seen a roughly 10% decline in participation since 2010 due to safety concerns among parents.

I didn’t start out my parenthood career opposed to football. I come from a family with decades of NFL season tickets. My SISTER played tackle football as a kid. I find the sport complex, thrilling and engaging. I get why pro football is a $10 billion market in our country.

The first time my son played flag football, I made a decision to ban the tackle version from our lives. He was about eight, skinny as a bare twig. Just playing touch football, he got hurt – his hip – and I saw the future. He’d play tackle football for his middle and high school teams, and sooner or later, he’d get hurt far worse. Maybe seriously, maybe wheelchair inducing, maybe just a bum knee that would throb for the rest of his life whenever snow was forecast. It was inevitable, given football’s premise: boy, get out there and hit someone…make him eat dirt…knock his jock off… hopefully so hard the guys on the ground cannot get up again.

The odds were that if my son played football, he’d likely get injured, and possibly never play another sport again in his lifetime.

Back then, I was just running on mom-instinct, but it turns out the stats back up my suspicions:

  • The average high school football player absorbs 1,000 blows to the head per season.
  • Between 4 to 20 percent of college and high school football players will sustain a brain injury during the course of one season.
  • Football consistently has the highest concussion rate of any high school sport; the concussion rate is nearly double that of college (6.2 percent).
  • In 2011 roughly 122,000 children between the ages of 10 and 19 went to emergency rooms annually for nonfatal brain injuries — for boys, the top cause was playing football.

A football injury had the potential to ruin all other sports for my son. That would have wrecked his life. Too high a price to pay for any sport.

So I banned football for life.

I knew he’d face pressure to play, especially at his 300-student, fiercely scrappy school where the coaches troll the hallways looking for unsuspecting players to compete against much larger pools of potential athletes. I figured it would be easier for my son to say no to football coaches and players if he had the excuse (cringe-producing as it may have been) that his mom forbid him to play.

His football friends have been lucky, and none has experienced a major injury. In fact, we’ve seen more lacrosse, basketball, and baseball injuries than in football. Ironically, my son got a mild concussion playing basketball – I figure this is just a statistical fluke — but I learned the concussion basics: Don’t let them go back into the game, because a second head injury can compound the damage; watch for lethargy, headache, vomiting, stiff neck, slurred speech or confusion, and seek medical help if any occur; have a baseline MRI before your child plays any contact sports, so a doctor can accurately assess the damage if a concussion; and make the child wait until they are fully recovered to play again.

My son survived the trauma of not playing middle and high school tackle football. Even without eating dirt, he’s grown into a tough, macho, typically male 17-year-old who to my regret has pictures of NFL cheerleaders in his room. He enjoyed a robust childhood sports career and is heading off to play college basketball, which continues to offer plenty of “contact” (and without pads to protect him). To fill the psychic abyss left by loss of the tackle game, thankfully, he’s turned to Fantasy Football. Isn’t that why they call it Fantasy Football – because our sons can’t get hurt playing it?

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