Golf -- a contact sport you can play for a lifetime

This past December, Hall of Fame coach and ESPN commentator Mike Ditka gave an interview about his good friend Mike Pyle, a Chicago Bears legend whose recent death had been linked to CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Ditka didn't knock football, but instead suggested that if his own son wanted to play sports, why not golf?

We've learned in recent years that CTE is a degenerative disease found in the brains of those with a history of repetitive head trauma, and Ditka said in a Chicago Tribune story that seeing his old friend and teammate a few years before his death was "like talking to a child."

In a wide-ranging interview, such a statement from a Super Bowl-winning coach really got me thinking. Not so much about if kids and parents should consider avoiding football and other contact sports, but more about the opportunity golf has to position itself as a contact sport of a different kind -- one for a lifetime.

Shortly after hearing Ditka's comments, I was sitting near an 8th grade girl in my own doctor's office. The girl was being treated for a concussion sustained playing competitive basketball. Her mom asked the doctor a few questions about concussion prevention, including new concussion headbands on the market, and then asked what other sports might be out there.

I just couldn't help myself and blurted out, "She should try golf!"

"Golf has the opportunity to present itself to parents, kids, educators and public health advocates as a relatively safe game, with a lifetime of healthy "contact" on many levels. It should be part of what is offered at every school in this nation." Dottie Pepper

The mom then said something about having another daughter who loves tennis and that she heard of women's college golf scholarships that often go unclaimed. Bingo!

What, exactly, is a contact sport for a lifetime?

Anders Mattson, a fellow Furman alum and the two-time Northeastern New York PGA Teacher of the Year and Director of Instruction at Saratoga National Golf Club, turned my attention to the definition of contact as being the act or state of two things touching or meeting. He observed that these two things could be objects common to golf, like when the club comes in contact with the ball, or the ball strikes the turf. He also emphasized that contact in golf consists of two people meeting.

That other kind of contact, called "social contact" by NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, is the handshake at the end of the round that honors the efforts of a fellow competitor and respects the rules and integrity of the game. Social contact also includes the value of golf as exercise and as a social or business tool.

"Golf should be the first sport option," Swann said about his deep feelings for the sport.

Talk about a powerful statement. Swann didn't say only sport option, but rather the first sport option. The former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver believes if a youngster is passionate about football, basketball, baseball -- whatever it might be -- they should pursue those passions knowing golf is always there, even if a competitive career in those other sports might end with high school graduation.

After watching the movie "Concussion" -- while I found it very disturbing on many levels -- I came away asking myself the same question. With this new awareness and concern surrounding deaths linked to CTE, as well as the rise of youth sports-related concussions, is there a place for golf to fill the sports void?

In 2015, University of Colorado-Denver professor Sarah K. Fields published a study in JAMA Pediatrics that took data from 2005-14 from a sampling of 100 high school soccer programs in the United States. Her study revealed 627 concussions for girls and 442 for boys, placing soccer among the top-five most dangerous sports for kids, behind traditional full-contact sports like football and wrestling. Most of these concussions were caused not by heading the ball, but by contact with another player.

Golf has the opportunity to present itself to parents, kids, educators and public health advocates as a relatively safe game, with a lifetime of healthy "contact" on many levels. It should be part of what is offered at every school in this nation.

Disclaimer: golf is not without some risk. No competitive athlete is immune from injuries caused by repetitive movement. Just look at the toll it took on Tiger Woods' body, along with aggressive training methods. The same can be said for many other golfers, myself included, plagued by injury. That's life.

So why is golf not offered as part of the scholastic physical education curriculum? Programs are being reduced or eliminated at many schools due to budget cuts. This is a huge mistake with long-term consequences. Golf is a worthy solution, not only to the physical side of childhood education, but as something that can contribute to the social and emotional opportunities for kids as well.

"Golf should be the first sport option." Lynn Swann

School-friendly golf equipment is now available, making it possible to be taught safely indoors. This eliminates the old argument that teaching new golfers requires good weather and large outdoor spaces. Every PGA chapter and section has the potential to help and often it is just a matter of communication between PGA professionals and school administrators.

State and regional golf associations are also eager to help. Equipment is available and can quickly be in the hands of kids at a very reasonable cost.

So what makes golf a great alternative to other sports?

"I have seen first-hand, not only as a Division I athlete who has suffered two major concussions, but also with concussion-suffering athletes coming in the office for treatment ... [that] if we can put more focus on helping an athlete's overall cognitive and cortical function and not just focus on symptom relief, I feel as though the athlete will be far better off," said Dr. Joe Bova of Latham, New York, who is a former Division I basketball player at Columbia University and a Board Certified Functional Neurologist, one of fewer than 500 such specialists in the United States, according to his website. "Which is why everyone should play golf!"

The caddie yard was once the training ground for many golfers. But the game has changed. Let's have the schoolyard be the place to train future generations.

In light of new knowledge about the severe risks often associated with other contact sports, risks that can literally leave the brain choked off from normal neuropathic function, the opportunity for golf seems greater than ever.

ESPN Golf analyst Dottie Pepper previously served on the board of directors at the PGA of America.