No, You Cannot Play Football
We recently moved from a Washington, D.C. suburb to one that’s generally more embraced as a Baltimore ‘burb. Which means we changed football team territories. Now, we’ve never been a big televised-sports-watching family (I enjoy the Olympics and tennis but can really only tolerate watching if I’ve DVR’d them and can fast-forward through the commercials and filler), but football has slowly taken hold among our boys, so the Sunday games are now something we watch pretty regularly.
And football is BIG where we live now. Baltimore’s home team spirit is unlike anything I’ve experienced outside of college. (I grew up outside Philly where fans routinely boo their own teams, and I pretty much ignored D.C. football other than the occasional “just CHANGE THE NAME ALREADY!” sigh of exasperation.) And we’ve encouraged our boys to embrace and enjoy the fan culture. They have new Ravens jerseys, pennants on their doors, and my husband is super jazzed about taking the older ones to their first real football game downtown.
But no, they will not be playing football anytime soon.
Sure, toss a ball around the backyard, practice some kicks, maybe a flag/no-contact league but that’s it. My signature will never, ever appear on a permission slip for traditional football. Or any high-impact sport, for that matter.
This recent op-ed from The New York Times sums up my feelings pretty well: We didn’t used to KNOW the lasting, permanent brain damage high-impact sports (generally considered to be boxing, football, ice hockey & some martial arts) can inflict on amateur and professional players alike. Now, we know. And it’s not pretty. Repeated blows to the head, even while wearing a helmet, can damage a brain on a cellular level — and unlike other parts of our bodies, the brain cannot repair its cells. We have a set number of brain cells and that’s all we get. The damage is permanent, and even an amateur player can accumulate enough cellular injuries over a typical high school career to cause serious, life-long problems from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or C.T.E.
Among those problems: major depression, memory loss, suicidal thoughts/actions, drug and alcohol issues and dementia later in life. I admit my enthusiasm for watching college and professional football gets dimmed a bit every time I read about C.T.E., since so many of the current players were probably never aware of these specific risks when they started playing, and there still aren’t enough safety measures in place to protect them. A torn ACL or broken bone will heal. Your brain will not. Ever.
We sign our kids up for sports because it’s fun, it’s good for them physically and socially, because we played them as kids and enjoyed the experience. But when it comes to the high-impact sports, I can’t imagine signing my children up for something so risky to their still developing brains, especially when they are too young to understand those risks.
After everything I’ve done so much to protect their growing brains so far, be it bike helmets and car seats and obsessing over plastics and environmental toxins all the way back to my pregnancies, I’m not going to ignore the pretty clear and stern warning from the American Academy of Pediatrics about children, contact sports and the seriousness of C.T.E. just because “oh, it’s just youth football or hockey, it’s tradition, it’s culture, it’s fun.”
If your young children want to play football, flag football remains a much safer alternative. The issue of player safety remains just as concerning, however, for teenagers who want to play on school teams where tackling is allowed and concussions aren’t always treated as seriously as they should be. Those teenage brains are still developing…for some human beings the brain continues to develop until age 25. So unless youth and high school and college teams start making major changes to protect the younger, most vulnerable players (and some are! and I’m hopeful more will, with the release of the movie Concussion and increased media attention on C.T.E)…well, my children will be sitting this game out.