On Football And Keeping Kids Safe Vs. Inhibiting Their Independence
"Concussion," a movie starring Will Smith as a forensic pathologist who discovers devastating brain trauma in some football players, will be released in theaters on Dec. 25. It could make what seems a very technical disease like chronic traumatic encephalopathy less remote and generate concern among NFL watchers for the long-term health of their icons.
But it also raises an important question: Given what we are learning about the brain, should humans be playing football?
Bennet Omalu, the inspiration for Smith's character, wrote an editorial in The New York Times this week to argue against football at the youth level. He said the activity is damaging for young brains and that, given what we now know, we should treat it like smoking and limit football to adults who choose to take that risk.
Those who would deny this emerging science are foolish. Concussions can be devastating in the short and long term, and we know enough to insist on trained medical personnel on the sidelines even at the youth level, and waiting until young (and old) brains are fully healed before putting players back in uniform.
Here's the thing though, all youth sports -- even noncontact ones -- carry with them some risk, particularly for girls, whose concussion rates are higher even though their participation in tackle football is lower.
It's worth noting that leagues are trying to protect kids from the repeated head hits. In 2012, Pop Warner changed the rules to limit tackling in practice in response to research. The NFL is also trying to sell the premise of heads-up tackling as some kind of concussion preventative, even though helmet-to-helmet tackles are a harmful example to aspiring players in every game on Sundays.
There was a study that found those who played tackle football before age 12 did worse on cognitive-assessment tests, and some have argued against any contact sport for kids under 14.
But there are bigger issues at play: How safe do we want our children to be? And will the bubbles we lovingly create for them inhibit their growing independence? After all, raising a child to be a competent adult soul is still the goal in parenting, even if we go about it differently than those parents a few generations ago.
I'll never forget when my daughter Charlotte, then 9, had been outside a while and I went out to look for her. She answered my call and I looked straight up. She was 20 feet up a tree, just sitting on a limb. Part of me was proud she was so adventurous, and another part of me saw her potentially tumbling from the branch.
There is a tension between creating that safety for our kids and giving them opportunities to spread their wings. Organized sports are the way many of us have decided we feel most comfortable, where that balance can be achieved when few kids wander their local woods for an afternoon or ride their bikes into town alone anymore.
So we enroll them in local sports leagues and ferry them from game to game so they can learn about leadership and teamwork and winning, of course. There are benefits; studies show that girls who played sports can translate those skills into professional success. Exercise benefits our brains as well, improving memory and blood flow to the brain in addition to all the benefits to the rest of the body. The NFL even goes for the halo effect on this with its "Play 60" initiative to get kids active.
While Omalu is right to seek a reduction in the risk of head trauma in children, we are still tree-climbers and skydivers. We want to sail around the world alone like Laura Dekker did at age 14. How much of our own nature can we be expected to curtail? How much do we want to inhibit in our children? We can take football off the menu of childhood sports, but girls actually suffer more concussions playing ice hockey than boys do by playing football. So is ice hockey out as well?
Unlike the argument made by Omalu that likens football to smoking, there are a lot of benefits for children in engaging in sports, even football. Flying in competitive gymnastics, heading the ball in soccer, diving for a loose ball on the basketball court and cycling all contain an inherent risk to children and adults. Removing all risk is impossible. Managing the risk -- like making sure trained medical professionals are involved in the event of any head injury -- is where we as a society must evolve.
There is no "war on football," but there is a healthy discussion underway. Some ex-NFL players (including ones that work for this network) anticipate the NFL would be degraded if players were not learning the game in the same way they did, treating youth football as some sort of child-rearing app. That fantasy is not enough of a reason to keep things status quo despite mounting evidence of a correlation between CTE and contact sports.
There is enough science for parents to want to weigh the risks and the rewards and see if a modified game of football is still the best fit for their own children. And that's an assessment that should be made with soccer, boxing, cheerleading and any other activity in which a child's head could be exposed to contact. We aren't raising eggs. The goal is a fully formed, capable adult with potential intact.
How that affects the long-term health of the NFL is irrelevant.
Other things on my mind this week:
Dusty Baker, please sit down.
The International Olympic Committee can finally cancel the "boil ice cream" recommendation for Olympic athletes in Rio. IOC committee member Anita DeFrantz apologized after saying that ice cream, not the filthy water in Rio, made a junior rowing team sick. DeFrantz went on "Mike & Mike" last week to discuss the water quality at the Olympic venue, which an independent analysis by Rhe Associated Press found to be dirty enough to cause illness in humans.
Add new Gamecocks football coach Will Muschamp to the list of dunces who have said something along the lines of, "Hey, guys, check out my hot wife! I can recruit!" This, as SB Nation's Andy Hutchins pointed out in 2012, is objectifying, heteronormative and several other multisyllabic words.
Hey, US Soccer, stop asking women to play on artificial turf. Especially the garbage turf they were subjected to in Hawaii. The women comprise the nation's premiere soccer team, and they are treated like second-class athletes. Thank goodness they aren't taking it.