No, Not All Sports Are ‘Dangerous’ Like Football

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy, Facebook and Erik Isakson/Getty

Each fall, my husband and I have the same argument with our kids. They ask if they can play football, we say no, and they whine. We hold strong and eventually they stop asking…until the following year. Rinse and repeat. It’s exhausting and annoying, but we hold firm in our “no football” stance.

I wasn’t always so sure about taking football off the table, however. In fact, when my son was in first grade, he played flag football and loved it. When he was in second grade, I reluctantly agreed to let him play tackle football mostly because I didn’t want to be a Dream Killer. That’s right, I’d been dubbed the Dream Killer when I said he couldn’t play tackle football. He was 8 years old, yet apparently he was certain his “dream” was to play football in the NFL.

Our typical argument went something like this: I’d remind him how few football players actually make it into the NFL, and he’d tell me that this was why he needed to start practicing now. He’d collapsed in a puddle of his tears, mumbling about his slaughtered dream. I’d tell him that his dad and I would talk about it. I’d avoid giving him a definite answer, though in my head, I was thinking Hell NO, you’re not playing football.

But in my heart? Well… back then, my heart just didn’t know what to do.

Until then, I’d let intuition and my own personal compass guide my decisions. But when it came to football, I lacked a strong intuitive pull about what the right decision was. Five years ago — when we were in the midst of the Dream Killer Debacle — information was coming to light about just how dangerous football was, but there was still some debate about when and at what age and how it was most dangerous. In the past, I’d made decisions that went against some experts’ advice when it came to things like breastfeeding, time-outs, and screen time, but with football, I didn’t have the intuition or personal experience to guide me. And the issue seemed to open up a whole bunch of other questions.

If I made football off-limits, would I also forbid him from hockey or skiing or rock climbing? What about all the friends and other families — good parents who cared about protecting their kids — who allowed their kids to play football? And would we be hypocrites if we cheer for college football players on a Saturday afternoon, but forbid our kids from playing the sport?

Five years ago, I was unsure and ultimately agreed to let my son try it out (though by the grace of god he ultimately decided on his own not to play).

But now? Well, now there is absolutely no grey area for me. There is no uncertainty. There is no doubt.

Because there is no way in hell my kids are playing football. NO WAY.

So, what has changed for me?

Well, most importantly, the evidence about the dangers of football has grown and it is irrefutable. According to a recent study published in the Annals of Neurology, it isn’t the number of concussions that impacts the severity of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head — it’s the number of years spent playing football. According to CNN, after studying the brains of more than 260 professional and amateur deceased football players, Boston University researchers found that the risk of CTE doubles for every 2.6 years of play. So, a kid who started playing tackle football at 5 years old would have 10 times the risk of developing CTE than a player who waited until age 14 to start playing tackle football.

According to the New York Times, another study found that former tackle football players with CTE doubled their risk of developing the worst forms of the disease for each 5.3 years they played. And research from Seattle Children’s Research Institute and UW Medicine’s Sports Health and Safety Institute found concussion rates among football players between the ages of 5-14 were higher than previously reported, with five out of every 100 kids, or 5%, sustaining a football-related concussion each season.

Fewer parents are letting their kids play football because of these risks, and playing football at a young age has become less socially acceptable. In fact, a PSA released by the Concussion Legacy Foundation likens the potential long-term damage football can have on children to children smoking cigarettes. The PSA is part of the “Tackle Can Wait” campaign, a movement sparked by the daughters of two NFL players, who both were diagnosed with CTE after their deaths, which encourages parents to hold off on letting their kids play tackle football until they are at least 14 years old in order to reduce the risk of CTE.

Although age 14 isn’t a magic number, co-author of the study Chris Nowinski told CNN research has shown that kids who get brain injuries before the age of 12 recover much more slowly. Additionally, the foundation points out that by encouraging kids to wait, parents may be able to bypass the sport all together. This is something that I’ve seen in my own sons. Even through they still ask to play, the enthusiasm for the sport gets less and less each year, especially as they get more involved with other sports and activities.

So why do some parents balk at this “wait to play” (much less the “no football ever”) viewpoint? Why do some parents still choose to let their young kids play football, despite all the scientific evidence out there about the dangers of CTE?

Well, some parents, simply want their kids to reap the benefits of team sports — of which there are many. There is no denying this. But there are tons of other sports kids play with far less risks for serious injuries and brain trauma.

Other parents say that all sports have a risk of injury, which technically is also true.

Heck, I swam competitively (one of the sports least likely to cause injury) and still had my stint on a Division I college team derailed due to a shoulder injury. But that’s the difference, a shoulder injury will not cause the serious and long-term impact that a brain injury will cause. Not.Even.Close. A pulled muscle, bruise, sprain, etc. cannot be equated to brain injury. That’s just nonsense.

Some parents argue that football is becoming safer, as certain dangerous plays are banned and coaches and players are taught safer tackling techniques.

But even when safety is paramount, head injuries still happen. In fact, just this week, a player for the Green Bay Packers was knocked out in what was deemed a “clean” tackle.

And still other parents believe that because other sports are also prone to injury, and life is inherently dangerous, we should encourage our kids to do what they love. Honestly, I understand this. I felt the same way five years ago when my son called me a Dream Killer.

As an overly cautious child, I don’t want my kids to avoid something – whether it is riding their bike with no hands, downhill skiing, asking a date to the prom, scuba diving, or taking a job in a foreign country – just because there are risks involved. I want to teach them to be informed of the risks, weigh the risks against the potential rewards, and then make smart decisions for them. My approach to parenting can best be described as controlled risk-taking. When my son climbed into the tall branches of the pine tree in our backyard, for instance, I only paused to take a picture before reminding him to be smart about his climbing.

But as parents, it isn’t just our role to teach our kids about smart risks and to encourage our kids to “follow their dreams,” it is our responsibility to KEEP THEM SAFE so they have enough time to actually follow those dreams. We need to draw the line at a number of things we deem unsafe, regardless of how “smart” they are about managing those risks. We don’t let our children run in the middle of busy streets. We make them wear seat belts. And when it comes to football, there are no smart risks for young kids; the evidence is too strong, the severity of the risks too high.

I sure as hell wouldn’t let my kids ride in a car without a seatbelt so why would I let them do something that is as (or more) likely to cause serious brain injury? And let’s be clear, safety should have nothing to do with a child’s intelligence. I mean, WTAF is this nonsense?!

So what’s a parent to do, especially when their kid is begging to play football? Well, parents can also let their kids play flag football or TackleBar, in which players wear traditional football gear along with two removable foam bars on the players’ mid-section which are designed to teach safer tackle techniques. TackleBar has been found to be seven times safer than any other form of football.

And, as hard as it is, we can make our kids wait until they’re older to play or stay firm with our “NO.” It’s not easy to be sure, but trust me, it gets easier with each passing year. Even if you are dubbed the Dream Killer.

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